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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Verdi Project: La Forza del Destino

The one where everybody (pretty much) dies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bang: Verdi's La Forza del Destino opens with an accidental domestic shooting.
Art by Don Falcone.
Following the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera, Verdi received a commission from the Imperial Russian Opera in St. Petersburg. For a subject, he came up with Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del Sino, a Spanish play by the Duke of Rivas. This would premiere in Russia in 1862 as La Forza del Destino ("The Force of Destiny.") . It was a success but performances of the opera in Italy (retitled "Don Alvaro") were met with indifference.

Since Verdi never completed his plans to set Shakespeare's King Lear, Forza claims the title of being the composer's bleakest opera. It is an existential drama set in a war-torn world. Characters rocket about and collide with each other in a story that careens from Spain to Italy and back again. The Aristotelian unities of drama and theater are simply ignored. Bad luck is followed by worse luck, and the original ending (where all three protagonists died horribly) was toned down so that the tenor would survive and enter a monastery.

Forza is the story of Don Alvaro, a Peruvian nobleman who is in love with Leonora, the hidalgo daughter of the Vargas family. (Alvaro, as was pointed out by my excellent colleague William Berger in his Verdi with a Vengeance is probably the only decent person among the Verdi tenor roles.) Since her father, the Marquis, objects to the wedding, they decide to elope. When Dad busts in on the lovers, Alvaro surrenders, putting down his flint-lock pistol. BANG! It goes off accidentally, and kills the old man. Leonora's brother, Don Carlo di Vargas, swears revenge and spends the next three acts hunting down the pair.

Their story unfolds in two countries. Leonora flees with Carlo hot on her heels. She seeks sanctuary with monks: she is set up with solitary accommodation in a hermit's cell in the mountains. Alvaro changes his name and goes to war. There, he saves the life of Carlo, who has also changed his name. When the two men finally recognize each other, they duel. Alvaro flees back to Spain and winds up at the same monastery as Leonora. Carlo tracks him down and provokes him into a duel. They go to fight in the mountains and Alvaro deals Carlo a mortal wound. The noise attracts Leonora, who is slain by the dying Carlo. In the original ending, Alvaro throws himself screaming off a cliff.

Verdi, always willing to experiment, had his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, graft additional material onto the original story, expanding the scope of the drama and the breadth of the work. That material came from Wallensteins Lager, a play by Friedrich Schiller. Verdi was no stranger to Schiller, having used his plays as the basis for three operas. He would return to the playwright for his next opera Don Carlos. The Wallenstein play gave him a vast cast of minor characters. The army recruiter Preziosilla and the gruff Fra Melitone are the most memorable of these. They are more than just comic relief and musical variety: their presence lends a universality and relatability to the events of this opera: they put the trio at the opera's heart in perspective.

Humanism or no, there were still problems with Forza. Verdi put the work through serious revisions, working with a new librettist. The famous Overture was added, replacing the brief, brisk prelude. The ending was toned down, with Alvaro joining the brotherhood and praying for Leonora's soul. The new version of Forza was a success and entered the repertory. It remains in the upper echelon of Verdi's operas but is performed more rarely, as its three leading roles all require singers of considerable resource. Each has magnificent music to sing: from the show-stopping soprano aria "Madre, pieotoso virgine" to the friendship-then-fight duets between Alvaro and Carlo.

Famously, this opera about bad luck is considered to be unlucky. Piave died before he could finish the libretto. The baritone Leonard Warren was singing the role of Carlo when he had a heart attack onstage at the old Metropolitan Opera in 1960. (His last words were "To die, a tremendous thing.") Luciano Pavarotti, a deeply superstitious man, flirted with singing Alvaro but ultimately never attempted the role. His hesitation forced the Met to withdraw the opera in 1996 and replace it with Un ballo in Maschera.

More recently, plans for a new Met production of Forza in 2017 were nixed for performances of Verdi's Requiem. The Met cited budget reasons, but it was more likely that the unavailability of Sondra Radvanovsky (she had agreed to switch to the season-opening Norma) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (he had retired from stage performances due to his battle with brain cancer and died last year) meant that the Forza curse (if there is one) had struck again.

Recoerding Recommendations:
Although Forza has had bad luck on the stage, it has had the reverse on disc. There are some really wonderful recordings available, and the three that follow are the ones that are in the Superconductor music library. All of these are the revised 1969 version of the opera. There is an excellent Mariinsky Opera recording of the 1962 version with a Russian cast and Valery Gergiev conducting.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. James Levine (RCA/Sony 1976)
The first recording of Placido Domingo as Alvaro, a part that he would own for twenty years. Mr. Domingo is fresh and youthful opposite Leontyne Price's legendary Leonora. Sherril Milnes twirls his mustachioes as Don Alvaro. There is a great supporting cast with Fiorenza Cossotto a notable Preziosilla. Chorus and orchestra are excellent, and this is early James Levine.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 1985 )
This is a conductor's recording, with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli putting his stamp on things from the searing Overture to the final redemption.. It is also notable as the last major recording for soprano Rosalind Plowright and the last for José Carreras before his cancer diagnosis two years later. Renato Bruson is an excellent and evil Carlo, Agnes Baltsa a fiery and funny Preziosilla. The "Son Pereda" scene is worth the price of admission.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti (EMI 1986)
Riccardo Muti made a number of Verdi recordings while at the helm of La Scala. Here, he has Placido Domingo paired with Mirella Freni as Leonora, with both singers caught in their prime. Giorgio Zancanaro is a snarling Carlo. The La Scala forces sing and play this opera with real fire and love for every bar of the score.
Made it through again? Here is Ettore Bastianini as "Pereda" (really Don Carlo in disguise) in Act II of La Forza del Destino. Filmed in 1958.

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