La forza del destino (2005 production)
Francesco Maria Piave
Festival Première on 28th June 2005 at the Nationaltheater
Interview: Fabio Luisi (conductor) and David Alden (director).
La forza del destino is, in the truest sense of the word, a highly uncomfortable piece?
Luisi: I don't know if it's uncomfortable; it is primarily one thing: very complicated. This story of vengeance and sense of honor is very convoluted, and you have to find a way to tell it convincingly.
Alden: I think if you play this piece about Spanish honor today, it has another meaning. It seems more like a family drama with powerful Freudian over or undertones. Think of the relationship between the daughter, who has to live under the strong hand of her father, and the dead father, or the brother, whom we don't even see in the opening family scene, but who later shows up with a violent obsession about his sister, determined to kill her and her lover come hell or high water. He is obsessed with vengeance, even when he runs into Preziosilla - it seems that he must have had some kind of erotic relationship with her, but ultimately it's only about him and his sister. That's the whole story.
Luisi: As I see it, breaking out is a very important point in this story. We initially have breaking out in a pseudo-religious then later on in a genuinely religious sense. But as early as the prologue a breakout has taken place; two in fact, Alvaro's from his cultural surroundings and Leonora's, who seems to have already had some kind of frightening experience with him and was fetched back home by her father. We do not actually witness this in the opera, but it is enormously important, because right from the outset we can sense the tension of this woman in her quest for herself, determined not to submit to the Spanish constellation of honor. She's like the daughter of some major CEO back in 1968, who runs off with a college student on LSD.
But then why does she go into hiding after that, she completely shuts herself off?
Luisi: Anyone, for instance, who joins a sect nowadays breaks out of the old society to begin a new life - and that's what Leonora does. It's her third and definitive breakout. But the priests in the play are not the kind of monks are generally familiar with. They belong to a fanatical sect of outsiders somewhere in the mountains. Melitone is actually a Dolcinian, who'd like to kill anyone who doesn't think the way he does.
Alden: But she alone decides to live as a hermit for the rest of her life. She leaves this world like someone who builds her own prison in a small space and then remains there until she dies. We might even say that this escape from the world is a purely negative decision. On the other hand, she uses it to open another door: she embarks on an inner journey, and now tries to become a saint. Of course she is plagued with guilt feelings, and feels responsible for the murder of her father - like Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, who, after her father's death, cannot enter into any kind of relationship with other people, especially men. Leonora tries to forget Don Alvaro, to drive him out of her heart.
That's one part of the story, but on the other hand - and this is largely striking in a musical sense - there are all kinds of secondary characters like Preziosilla and Melitone. Suddenly a highly realistic, almost grotesque world comes into view.
Alden: This is highly unusual for Verdi. It is perhaps his only opera in which he tries to write a novel beyond the actual drama. He embraced romanticism and had in mind a novel à la Victor Hugo. La Forza del destino is more of an epic like Gone With the Wind or Voyna i mir (War and Peace). Apart from Simon Boccanegra, it is the only piece that plays over a long period of time, whereas Simon is more of a lyrical play, a poem. The sensation here is more enclosed, but also self-contained. In Forza, we have something very open. For example he used a scene from Schiller's Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein's Camp). This is, like the entire play, more of a mosaic. That's why we often read that the drama has no continuity. In reality Verdi has created something apart from normality.
It is more of a zigzag dramaturgy moving around a continuity line. Does this rather unusual pace show up in the music as well? The Melitone scenes really take us by surprise. All of a sudden buffa music flows into a context where we wouldn't really expect it to show up.
Luisi: I think it is right to take these scenes away from the cliché-ridden corner of comic opera. This gives us an exaggerated, exposed form of comedy, which carries more weight because it is grotesque. We don't laugh, but rather somebody makes a funny face at us. That is not laughing because something is clever, but because it is so exaggeratedly funny that it is no longer witty. We can understand the tragedy behind it.
The choral tableaux have a similar effect. The war chorus and the religious scenes. which are enormously intense.
Alden: The religious moments in the play are very interesting, because Verdi himself had enormous doubt vis-à-vis religion and was largely against the church as an institution. To me, this piece is like stations of the cross. All the characters try, each in their own way, to crucify themselves, to destroy and annihilate themselves, in order to achieve liberation. This goes for Leonora as much as for Alvaro. He is an outsider and perceives himself as an enemy of destiny. He seeks death and cannot find it. Even Carlo's obsessive vengeance is a long self-destruction. Only in his aria: "Urna fatale" is there a brief moment of insecurity, as he undergoes a moral crisis. He briefly recognizes an opportunity to purify himself if he could just keep his hands off his friend's papers.
The obsessions in this drama stand opposite the concept of destiny. Over the past decades, we haven't taken destiny very seriously, but at the latest since the Tsunami disaster we don't ridicule it any more. We reflect about things that might descend on us without our being able to influence them in any way.
Alden: A better title might be The Power of Coincidence. It isn't destiny that leads everybody on, but rather an interlinking of coincidences, which brings everyone together only to separate them again.
In the first version there is a very radical ending in which Alvaro curses God and heaven and then kills himself. This ending is for a number of different reasons rarely performed lately, only occasionally out of purely historical interest.
Luisi: That is an interesting version especially because it breaks away from the cliché of religious redemption, which in this case almost seems blasphemous.
Alden: In the new version he says at the end that he has been saved. This is very interesting. The reason for playing the new version is the beauty and, in particular, the stillness of the music. There is hardly any other opera that displays such a catastrophe and nevertheless possesses an incomparable stillness. In the score there are many intense, driven and insane moments, but also ones of religious transfiguration and serenity. If you don't play that it is bad. I am actually for a nihilistic ending, but this one holds the plot together better, tying up all the loose ends.
The power in the play is largely an earthly one, a warlike and destructive one on both a personal and societal level.
Alden: In Verdi's time, war many people regarded war as a form of liberation. It brought along the promise of adventure, sex and money. Meanwhile we can watch war live or with brief delays on CNN. It was different in Verdi's day. War took longer, and we couldn't destroy everything with a single bomb. For most people, war wasn't all that present. Only when people were directly involved did they comprehend what war really is. You just didn't see so many images of it.
Many baroque operas seem closer to us today in the way society is presented than do 19th century pieces. One might almost say over the past decades these had somewhat declined in our perception. Is this perhaps why we find a piece like La forza del destino so exciting, because - unlike Macbeth, Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera - it is again a kind of "world theatre"?
Alden: All the pieces you mentioned are fantastic theatre. Perhaps today it is harder for us to find the right singers. It seems easier today to cast Monteverdi or Händel. I sometimes said that baroque pieces especially appeal to us today because they are very open for the audience. In my opinion there are some 19th century topics especially with reference to power and relationships which are riddled with great complexes that didn't exist before. Today the older pieces seem closer to us.
Luisi: This is a normal reception problem. Contemporary material is the hardest for us to relate to. The farther back we go, the easier it is for us to approach. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that our concept of musical theatre keeps moving farther and farther away from the original idea of opera, namely the total sublimation of reality. This had already begun with Mozart and runs all the way to verismo, which totally negates the original concept of opera. People keep composing more and more realistically, looking for and finding more realistic subject matter.
Alden: It has something to do with the fact that we sometimes very powerfully sense a few 19th century taboos and complexes between men and women in Verdi's works. Today, perhaps we think we've already broken out - and these pieces uncomfortably remind us that we haven't done that at all in view of all the strictures we still face today.
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera