Forza del destino: Playthings of the gods?

Article by Robert Thicknesse

First let’s tackle that title. Ever since someone lazily translated the Italian we’ve been stuck with The Force of Destiny, which is hardly English at all. Even The Power of Fate, which would make more sense, hardly does it. Verdi’s characters are pursued by an implacable, merciless doom, something they repeatedly try to hide from while failing to grasp that it will never release its hold on them until they are First let’s tackle that title. Ever since someone lazily transliterated the Italian we’ve been stuck with The Force of Destiny, which is hardly English at all. Even The Power of Fate, which would make more sense, hardly does it. Verdi’s characters are pursued by an implacable, merciless doom, something they repeatedly try to hide from while failing to grasp that it will never release its hold on them until they are dead. It’s a peculiarly personal form of retribution, a wolfish pursuer with the vendetta mentality of the mafia. There’s no escape. Actually, that wouldn’t make a bad title, with the noir-ish overtones this opera begs for: No Escape.

It is Verdi’s biggest, maddest opera, and it came at a very particular point in his career. He finished Un ballo in maschera – performed at Opera Holland Park last year – in 1858 at the age of 45. That was the end of what the composer called his “sixteen years in the galleys”: his work, he hoped and trusted, was over. The other pillar of his life, Italian unification, was on an unstoppable roll; the war of 1859 drove the Austrians who owned the north of the country back into their Venetian stronghold, and Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily in 1860 would in short order cause the collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Kingdom of Naples.

Verdi was living the life of a country gentleman in Sant’ Agata with Giuseppina, the long-time companion whom he had finally married. Rather against his will, he was to find himself nominated as a deputy to the new Italian parliament in 1861. In any case, “I hope I have bidden farewell to the muses and that I shall never again feel the temptation to take up my pen,” he wrote to his old collaborator Francesco Maria Piave.

Never say never again. Perhaps the prospect of parliament made composing seem a more inviting prospect. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps his Peppina was an exceptionally persuasive pesterer, because it was she who seems to have convinced him to think again. She had a letter from an old friend asking whether Verdi mightn’t be persuaded to accept a commission to compose a new opera for the St Petersburg winter season of 1861. The choice of subject would be entirely his. Giuseppina artfully forgot to mention to Verdi how cold it would be. It was enough. He agreed.

His first thought was to adapt Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, but realised that this play, with its strident message of political liberation, was a dodgy choice for Russia, whose censorship made European versions look like freedom-of-information pussycats. Somewhere at the back of his mind something was nagging him: “… a certain play he had once read and liked could not be found,” wrote Giuseppina. And then it was found: Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, a screamingly over-the-top gothic, romantic melodrama by Ángel Pérez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, that had caused a scandal at its Madrid première in 1835 because of its utter disregard for any kind of theatrical propriety: its hero almost accidentally wipes out the entire family of his beloved, then commits suicide, hurling blasphemous curses; its scene wanders from Spain to Italy and back; its time frame is a decade rather than the polite 24 hours demanded by classical unities; it promiscuously mixes commoners and aristocrats, prose and verse, comedy and bloody tragedy, and its dénouement is a triple bloodbath, a duel that ends “for lack of combatants”.

However alarming we might still find Saavedra’s play, its first night was an important moment in Spanish cultural history, with one blow destroying the fusty forms of neoclassicism and finally opening the door to the Romanticism which had been sweeping Europe since the end of the previous century and the blow destroying works of Goethe and Schiller – and was belatedly blowing into Spain following the death in 1833 of the repressive King Ferdinand VII, under whose reign most of the creative talent of Spain had taken refuge abroad. The immediate influences on Rivas and his contemporaries were Byron, Scott and Hugo; within a few years Spanish romanticism would flower with the works of Zorrilla, Espronceda and Gutiérrez, whose works El trovador and Simón Bocanegra had already served as inspiration for Verdi before he came to write La forza del destino.

Verdi returned to Spanish subjects and authors again and again: his earlier work Ernani was also based on a Spanish subject, albeit one seen through the prism of another of his favourite authors, Victor Hugo. It isn’t hard to see why the composer was drawn to these pieces: the baroque Spanish death cult, their fantastically dark tinta, roiling emotions and vivid action and situations made them perfect vehicles for a man whose outlook on life was never sunny, and their intellectual basis (they are all concerned with the logical working-out of a basic premise) is something they have in common with another of his favoured authors, Friedrich Schiller. They are deeply pessimistic works, in which the conflicts that torment humans – the distance between their piety and the fact that no-one is listening to their prayers, the impossibility of escaping from their ruinous cultural and social conditioning – drive them to destruction.

The composer was putting it mildly when he said of the play Don Álvaro “… it is certainly something quite out of the ordinary”. It is a tale of people who are doomed before it starts: trapped by ancestry, blood, character, class, culture, social code, self-image: disaster-bound not so much because of a nebulous “fate” as by themselves alone. They are their own fate; character is destiny. The way they think and act is so locked into the flawed culture which produced them that they cannot change and save themselves. Alvaro is pursued across continents by the family of Leonora, thirsting for his blood, but it is they who all die: Alvaro is their nemesis as surely as they are his. First Leonora and then Alvaro try to seek an exemption from this world of pursuit in the Monastery of the Madonna of the Angels, but the world hunts them down even there. Truly, no escape.

But, for perhaps the only time in Verdi, we are also offered an alternative view of life. Rivas leavened the gloomy one-way trajectory of his play with a few scenes where “ordinary” people go about their business, apparently immune to this world of doom and despair. His gypsy girl Preciosilla, maid Curra, muleteer Trabuco and monk Melitón carry on lives that are not exactly without their troubles but are nonetheless liveable lives with simple everyday hazards, joys and sorrows; they are, in fact, comic characters in an utterly serious work, and we should note that they survive the action. And it was this aspect of the play which grabbed Verdi’s attention almost more than the other. In fact he thought it the real centre of the drama: “The vast, varied pictures which fill one half of the opera and which truly constitute the Musical Drama are ignored by the public…”

And this, somewhat hidden, motivation explains why he significantly altered and expanded the already baggy format of Rivas’s play. Verdi’s Preziosilla, Trabuco and Melitone, each restricted to one scene in Rivas, have vastly expanded roles, all of them turning up (somewhat unexpectedly) in Italy when the action moves there in Act 3 for the battle of Velletri. There is a dramatic as well as a philosophical point here. Opera needs to radically condense its source text, which usually results in various characters being conflated. The most obvious example in Forza is Don Carlo, who in the opera represents no fewer than three characters in the play. When Verdi expanded the Velletri act – by inserting and adapting an entire scene from a completely different play, Wallenstein’s Camp by his adored Schiller – he needed somehow to link it with the Spanish parts of the opera. Trabuco therefore changes profession (and religion, turning Jewish) to turn into a profiteering pedlar; Preziosilla – who had already been inserted into the Act 2 scene at the inn at Hornachuelos as a freelance recruiting-sergeant for the war in Italy – makes good her promise to accompany her troops to battle; Melitone likewise travels a thousand miles to deliver a comedy sermon, and is the only character to meet all the others in the opera.

These people – and the crowds we see them with – are clearly no more in charge of their destinies than the tormented heroes of Forza. Tossed randomly around Europe, the fodder for wars of whose causes and purpose they haven’t the faintest conception, beggars, mendicants, travellers, this sociable bunch are sustained by nothing more than an often strained common humanity. This is all there is, Verdi is saying: your fellow human beings may be venal, stupid, ugly and generally unsanitary, but they are all you have to cling on to, and are a considerably better bet than the phantasms of honour, blood and God.

We tend, perhaps, to take operas at fact value and not to question too deeply why people behave the way they do. But even by operatic standards the characters in Forza act in an extreme manner. Verdi possibly fails to make it sufficiently clear that at the root of all the rage and hatred is a question of race. The “stain” that so obsesses the Calatrava family is all to do with Alvaro’s ancestry – which he persists in seeing as his big plus. His mother is the last descendent of the Inca emperors, his father the Spanish viceroy in Peru; after attempting to set up an independent kingdom they are arrested and thrown in jail; Alvaro has come to Spain to plead for them, a task he never actually makes any attempt to fulfil. In addition he refuses to reveal his ancestry, which is why the Marquis of Calatrava won’t let him marry Leonora: as far as the family is concerned he is a half-breed parvenu with no escutcheon.

In a rare bit of sanity (the exclusive province of the commoners) at the beginning of the play, Leonora’s maid Curra spells out what will really happen after her lady and Alvaro elope: “The Marquis will be furious for a while, he’ll stamp with rage, he’ll bother the magistrate and his friends the canon, the judge, the old boys at the equestrian society… a thousand orders will be issued to search for us but in vain because we’ll be safe and sound in Flanders. You’ll write from there and Señor will begin to relent, and in nine months time, when he knows there’s an infant who has his very same eyes, he’ll find consolation… we’ll return shortly after that, to be received with great rejoicing, and everything will be banquets and balls.” Well, that is real life and this is drama. Leonora prevaricates, a catalytic gun – a veritable starting pistol – goes off, and the implacable, irreconcilable characters of those present conspire to spell doom for all. It is Leonora, pursued by the relentless, rushing musical figure from the overture, who is the most pathetic victim of what is unmistakeably male rage and violence, Leonora the repository of all the Calatrava family’s stupendously fragile “honour”, Leonora who seeks nothing but peace, and seeks it in vain. For much of the opera both she and Alvaro believe each other to be dead, and a decade elapses between their two brief meetings. It is notable that nothing much really happens between those two meetings, but everybody connected with the first one is imprisoned by it, constantly thinking back to it, in thrall to its fatal power.

Nobody more so than Verdi’s Don Carlo, Leonora’s brother, who pursues the pair back and forth across Europe, while wars and global convulsions pass by almost unnoticed, merely a picturesque backdrop to what these possessed characters insist on thinking of as the real action. Like Alvaro, Carlo is a figure of tormented nobility, and Verdi’s greatest single amendment of Rivas. In the play there are two brothers – both killed in duels by Alvaro – and a student friend of one of them who relates the story at the inn in Act 2. It is, perhaps, a good deal more lifelike, if one can apply such a word to this work, but Verdi’s conflation of the three into one unstoppable force of nature is a masterstroke. Alvaro, longing to die, cannot do so; Carlo, on the other hand, is as relentless and indestructible as the Terminator. When he has accomplished his task, by killing his sister, he can retire from the drama – though he has to die at this point to fulfil Alvaro’s destiny as inadvertent exterminator of the Calatrava family.

And what about Alvaro? Equally obsessed with honour as the Calatravas, but unable to reveal himself to them, his impetuousness wins every time. Curiously unsure of his identity – given how much store he sets by it – he morphs from a gloomy Byronic pose to war hero to monk, all under different names. Obsessed by a moment of happiness years before, all his attempts to expiate the sin of killing the Marquis, however inadvertently, simply lead to more death. Following the final mayhem, Rivas has the maddened Alvaro leap into the abyss screaming blasphemies and calling down a curse on humanity: “Search for Father Rafael, you fools! I am the envoy of hell, the exterminating devil! May the heavens collapse! May the human race perish! Extermination! Destruction!” The original version of the opera followed this scheme, but it proved too strong meat for a 19th-century audience less desensitised than us. Verdi agonised for six years about how to change this: it was clearly impractical to engineer any kind of reconciliation between Alvaro and the Calatravas, so people still had to die, though Carlo’s death was moved offstage. Eventually a solution was found that did not betray the play too blatantly. Alvaro, finally, becomes tired of death, this thing he has been vainly seeking for ten years. His peculiar fate is to live. And perhaps, in a world where peace is conferred only by the grave, this is the worst fate of all.

Robert Thicknesse is a freelance writer and opera critic