Verdi's Giant Canvas

Classic Arts Features   Verdi's Giant Canvas
With a huge cast, multiple locations and settings, and mixture of elements both comic and tragic, Giuseppe Verdi's sprawling La forza del destino can be difficult to comprehend. Paul Thomason steps away from the big picture and examines the many parts that make up the rich patchwork of ideas from a composer at the top of his game.

It would be difficult to find another major Verdi opera that has been so mistreated and so misunderstood through the years as has Verdi's La Forza del Destino. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut, or truncated almost beyond recognition. Sometimes they were rearranged in an attempt to "improve" the supposedly incoherent libretto. Characters whom the composer admired were reduced to a few lines, or eliminated entirely. Even though such once-routine mangling of Forza is (thankfully) rarely encountered in major theaters today, for many operagoers the work remains more than slightly tainted by the idea that Verdi, somehow, got conned into writing some wonderful music for an absurd, unwieldy drama that probably should have been left undisturbed on 19th-century library shelves.

That view, though common, is regrettably shortsighted. It is true that if ever a major Verdi work disregarded the Aristotelian dramatic precepts of unity of time, place, and action it is La Forza del Destino. Aristotle thought a drama should take place within a 24-hour period. A production book from 1862, the year of Forza's premiere, and thought to be the work of the opera's librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out that "about 18 months pass between the first and second acts; several years between the second and third; more than five years between the third and fourth." Far from taking place in a single location, Forza blithely travels through Spain and Italy, encompassing numerous settings such as aristocratic homes, tacky inns, battlefields, woodlands, a monastery, and a cave in the side of a mountain. And as for staying with one central story and eliminating any action not relevant to the plot‹well, that's the antithesis of Forza's drama.

But far from being the major weakness of Forza, the great sprawling nature of the libretto with its cast of hundreds and improbable dramatic coincidences is‹in fact‹precisely its strongest point. In Forza Verdi paints on a gigantic canvas, telling the story of humanity itself. Scenes of aristocratic honor, all-consuming love, and wrenching private anguish, are cheek by jowl with scenes of squabbling peasants and drunken soldiers.

Some writers have compared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz' Les Troyens and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Perhaps the best description, however, is that La Forza del Destino is Shakespearean. In fact, writer William Weaver has termed it "Verdi's most Shakespearean opera. Shakespearean, that is, in Verdi's sense: a work of great variety, vast scope, juxtaposing comic and tragic, employing a number of unusual characters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Verdi himself realized), it is perhaps Verdi's boldest attempt to portray an entire, complex, contradictory world."

Shakespeare was a dramatist Verdi both loved and admired. He kept Italian translations of Shakespeare's plays beside his bed, and the highest compliment he could pay a character was that it was "worthy of Shakespeare." When he wrote La Forza del Destino, his first opera based on a Shakespeare play‹Macbeth‹was more than a decade old. His two final masterpieces, both drawn from Shakespeare‹Otello and Falstaff‹were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, had been a success at its premiere in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an astonishing decade which was ushered in by Verdi's remarkable trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata; found him writing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Siciliennes; then returning to Venice (scene of the premieres of Rigoletto and La Traviata) with Simon Boccanegra in 1857.

Verdi was the undisputed leading composer of Italian opera of the day. He had shown that he was a master of the bel canto tradition and that he could express, in new ways, both character and drama with increased vividness and truth. In short, Verdi was at the height of his powers thus far and not at all inclined to simply compose for the sake of composing. Instead, after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera, Verdi essentially retired from the theater, turning down numerous opportunities to write new operas in favor of fulfilling his duties as a (reluctant) member of Italy's new parliament and living the life of a country farmer.

Under these circumstances, it would be absurd to think Verdi was somehow finagled into setting a drama with which he was not fully in sympathy. Verdi explained part of the attraction the subject had for him in a letter: "The play is powerful, unusual, and extremely vast. I like it immensely." But just because it offered a vast panorama for Verdi does not mean he was careless about the construction of the libretto. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeatedly, emphasizing, "The style must be tightened up. The poetry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words."

By conventional standards it could, indeed, seem to be something of a problem to have a heroine, Leonora, with whom the audience falls in love in the opening scene, only to have her disappear at the end of act two and not reappear until the opera's last scene. But Leonora is not the subject of the opera. Neither is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Spanish play by Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is entitled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Verdi took the play's subtitle and called his opera La Forza del Destino ("The Force of Destiny"). And to emphasize that his opera was not just about the travails of the Calatrava family, he borrowed a scene from Schiller's Wallensteins Lager which added even more to the already bubbling mix of Gypsies, soldiers, disreputable friars, and peddlers.

Verdi's opera is not about individual characters, but about the way these characters react to the workings of fate, or destiny. The central character is fate itself, and the way it affects all segments of society, from the highest to the lowest. And destiny, by its very nature, cannot be confined to a nice tidy set of unities. Destiny runs its own course.

Which is one reason Verdi emphasized the importance of characters we sometimes (mistakenly) regard as minor. "Don't forget you need three artists who are completely at ease on stage to do Preziosilla, Melitone, and Trabuco," Verdi wrote to his publisher. "Their scenes are comedy, pure comedy. Therefore good diction and an easy stage manner. See to that."

And that suggests another reason we are perhaps a bit uncomfortable with La Forza del Destino: its assumption of the central role of fate or destiny in human existence. W. H. Auden once observed, "Art is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist communicates or arouses his feelings in others, but a mirror in which they may become conscious of what their own feelings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting."

Our society preaches that an individual is responsible for the outcome of his or her own life. If you really work hard, you'll be rewarded. If you sacrifice pleasure now, you'll reap dividends later on. Yet, on the boundaries of our lives‹usually pushed away from our daily routines‹we all know there are exceptions. From great natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina to doing something noble that backfires and brings calamity. In Act I of Forza Don Alvaro does something noble. He surrenders to Leonora's father by throwing down his pistol, only to have it accidentally go off, kill the Marquis di Calatrava, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death, and grief that lasts for years.

"Oh, please!" groans the modern operagoer. "That is so unrealistic." But is it? Accidental deaths (some from gun shots) are so common we seldom bother to trace their effects on the families involved. And in a larger sense, we all know stories about a person who is caught in traffic, thus missing a flight, only to not be on board an airplane that crashes. Or the reverse. How many of us, years later, are so thankful we didn't get a job we were desperate for at the time; or who are annoyed we've gotten lost in an unfamiliar city, only to turn the corner and meet a person who will bless our lives for years.

This quality is depicted in the tarot by the Wheel of Fortune, number 10 of the major arcane. "The Wheel does not become visible until we step away from it," writes Rachel Pollack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom, Part I. "When we are involved in it, we see only the events immediately before and behind us; the daily concerns our egos find so important. When we withdraw we can see the whole pattern. Psychologically we can view this vision as an assessment a person makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deeper level, the vision remains mysterious and symbolic. We can see what we have made of our particular lives, but fate remains a mystery…. The important thing about change is our reaction [to it]. Do we use it as an opportunity and find some meaning and value in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowledge. It can open the way to a new awareness."

This is not the subject matter we usually associate with an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But the writer Julian Budden got it exactly right when he said Forza was "an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side."

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