La Forza del Destino
Verdi's Schicksal Opera by the Dutch National Opera
A man falls in love with a woman who, because of his descent, is inaccessible to him. In this Romeo and Julia variation number 36,694, the father, who likes his daughter predestined for someone else, has to pay for his obstruction with a bullet coming out of a gun that goes off by accident. The pistol that goes off because it falls on the ground, but nevertheless produces a perfectly targeted shot, is one of the few coincidences in La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi that turns out to be a major plot twist (in fact, coincidence is synonym with disaster here). It’s the accident with the gun that emphasizes the tragedy of Don Alvaro, who did not meant wrong. After the death of her father Donna Leonora flees with Don Alvaro. (The story then moves from Spain to Italy.) The two lose each other and Leonora, thinking that Alvaro is dead, retreats into a hermitage where she is kept alive by the monks of a nearby monastery. Don Alvaro, who has joined the army, happens to save the life of Don Carlo, Leonora's brother who wants revenge for the death of his father. Since everyone goes under an alias by then, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo don't know from each other who they are. This will change when Don Alvaro is injured in battle and Don Carlo is entrusted with a box that contains a letter and a portrait from Leonora. Don Carlo disregards the request not to look into the box and finds out Don Alvaro's true identity. “Rache riete ich mir!” instead of “Baby, baby, baby” is Don Carlo’s adage (this is after all the Wagner & Heavy Metal- and not the Verdi & Justin Bieber-website) and when Don Alvaro has recovered from his wounds the two men fight a duel that is stopped by fellow soldiers. Don Alvaro flees into a monastery. Seven years go by when Don Carlo finally manages to find him there. In the duel that follows Don Carlo is mortally wounded and Don Alvaro flees into the hermitage (which is coincidentally near the monastery) where Donna Leonora lives / exists. With "Pace, pace mio Dio!” Donna Leonora wishes for the peace of death. An aria of superb lamentation. An aria in which all aspects of the drama are coming together and are falling into place. It took us three hours to get there and that's a bit long. It is the production of the Dutch National Opera that justifies, more than libretto and music do, that lenght.
It is the production of the Dutch National Opera that justifies, more than libretto and music do, the lenght of La Forza del Destino
The word "honor" in La Forza del Destino is an excuse not to contemplate one's own actions and an abbreviation for the male frustration about sex (especially the sexuality of women). Highly topical but that doesn't mean the story is ageless. La Forza is a chest of drawers from which arias, duets and choruses are drawn that serve only emotional and entertainment purposes. And to achieve that, Francesco Piave's libretto supplies every character with a crocodile mind (there is a Frank Castorf-reference lurking here - see the Bayreuther Castorf Ring). Those characters remain as far removed from introspection and/or contemplation as possible. No rationale can save them from themselves. Above anything else, the characters have an obligation to drama. Drama that is both means and goal at the same time. Drama that is so emphatically sought after that it becomes ridiculous and if brought up, very often, comes with comical effect. In the story of La Forza, we will search in vain for philosophical or political ideas. This opera is a soap opera and the story is not bigger than the story itself. Most multi-layered in this parade of primal minds is Don Alvaro. His good intentions notwithstanding, the racism of Leonora's father and Don Carlo's blind desire for revenge, deal him a bad hand. But also he, the kind-hearted, can suddenly switches from conflict-avoiding behaviour to combat mode when he feels offended. Good for us, because it results in another beautiful aria. In order to lift La Forza's story line above it silly meanderings, a comparison between La Forza and Wagner's Ring cycle was made in the introduction of this production / performance: Alvaro = Siegmund, Preziosilla = Valkyrie and Leonora left in her hermitage = Brunnhilde left on her rock. It's a comparison as far-fetched as it is grotesque. From Wagner's character development and ambiguity Verdi remains at more than just a giant arm’s length away. Not that it's bad. La Forza del Destino is the result of a productive day at the office and the light-cynical tone of the preceding text refers mainly to the libretto, not the music. The Dutch National Opera makes the most out of this nitwitted story that comes with some beautiful and gorgeous tunes.
Before he sets himself to a staging of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane in Berlin (in March 2018, the second Heliane this opera season, see Opera Vlaanderen’s production here), Christof Loy committed himself to Verdi’s Schicksal Opera. Just like in his staging for Mussorgksi's Khovanshchina last season, Loy uses a spacious stage with high walls and a Personenregie that reflects the dynamics of the music. It is an enlightening staging - with the exception of the utterly superfluous video projections in the worst kind of karaoke traditions – that provides Verdi's La Forza with some extra background information. A staging in which we are given an insight into the dystopian relationships within the Calatrava family. In the overture we see a brother of Leonora and Carlo dying at young age, it may give us a bit of insight into Don Carlo's irreconcilability with his sister later in the opera. Donna Leonare is sung by Eva-Maria Westbroek and her gigantic voice houses all colours of the drama. In the higher tones, however, she turns out to be a bit too monochrome. Here the power comes at the expense of eloquence. Franco Vassallo's Don Carlo has an impressive dark brown baritone that doesn't let his revenge cool down and Don Alvaro from tenor Roberto Aronica is the result of diligent, be it not unsympathetic, work. His voice and acting eventually convince and our heads, shaking in disbelief for how much wrongdoing one man can endure, grant him with a place in our, sometimes sceptic, heart.
There is a curse in La Forza – from the father who curses his daughter after he is mortally wounded - that is only effective because the people involved believe in it. There is more superstition in the story. Carefully played by a gypsy woman. Her voice sounds a bit meagre for a mezzo soprano but the stage presence, acting and dancing qualities of Veronica Simeoni make Preziosilla one of the most interesting and powerful characters of this Forza. The production provides her with a beautiful choreography, Simeoni’s Preziosilla is a highly credible man eater, the only one capable of looking through the covers of Carlo and Leonora, and with the gaze of someone who looks down from a future time on a time of superstition and backward social codes, she is someone who, despite her not always good intentions, can count on the sympathy of a 21st century audience that can relate to her independence.
It may be the arias, duets and glorious choruses that lift the entertainment value of La Forza far above average, they have been composed with applause in mind. And once you hear that, you can't unhear it anymore. The way Verdi (and with him many of his colleagues) finishes an aria (on a downstroke) to demand a response from the audience feels like a door-to-door salesman who shoves his foot between the door, forcing you to buy something. And despite tradition, it’s like a commercial break, an unpleasant interruption of the flow, it keeps me from acclaiming most of the times - despite the fact that the singers have my utmost respect. Those few seconds of silence, just after you have heard something beautiful, are by far preferable over the, often dutiful, applause after an aria. In order to make Wagner's objections to Italian vanity even more tangible, there was also applause after the overture - the opening that, like the rest of the score, was played swiftly and translucent under the baton of Michele Mariotti.
Drama thrives mythologization. And it is said that the curse in La Forza infected its performers. In 1960, Leonard Warren, a bass baritone, collapsed during a performance of the opera and died. The story goes that it stopped Pavarotti from singing in La Forza. In the category "Opera's with a curse", Forza is in the eminent company of Wagner's Tristan & Isolde, which, in the field of descending interpreters, goes a few steps further. In 1865, Ludwig Schnorr died a few weeks after singing Tristan's premiere - the legend goes that he left this world with a kind request for Wagner not to compose such demanding vocal lines anymore. Also among conductors, Tristan made its victims. Both Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilbert got, in the midst of conducting this opera, a heart attack that proved to be fatal.
In search of the meaning of life, things that happen to you can feel like divine intervention. God’s interference that tries to set you on a certain path. Fortunately, in the field of superstition and myth, there is nothing a sober mind and progressive insight can’t put into perspective. When you're young, you think that bad luck and ill-fate are intentional. If you are older you know better; then you know that they are, very often, the result of a coincidental meeting of circumstances.
Coincidence makes sure that Don Carlo eventually gets his revenge on his sister Donna Leonora. It's the last thing he does before he dies from the injuries Don Alvaro has inflicted on him. Don Alvaro stays behind alone, once more lamenting his fate and the opera closes in a sublime fade-out. Making sure the audience has to save its applause for the last aria until the moment the curtain falls.
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