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Sat November 10, 2012
Music News

Verdi's 'La Forza,' Born Under A Bad Sign

Originally published on Thu November 15, 2012 9:59 am

One hundred fifty years ago today, Giuseppe Verdi first mounted his opera La Forza del Destino ("The Force of Destiny") on a stage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Today, La Forza is considered one of Verdi's masterpieces, but it wasn't always that way. The story of Don Alvaro, whose love for the aristocratic Leonora incurs the wrath of her family, is violent and chaotic, and it flopped on its first run.

"People found it crazy. People found it emotionally incontinent," says William Berger, radio commentator for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and author of the book Verdi With a Vengeance. "Part of it has to do with the extremes of the emotion and the abruptness with which they change from comedy to tragedy, to absurdity, to religiosity, to drinking songs, to hate."

Verdi considered his opera a failure, but he decided to give it another try. He retooled the ending so that the two lovers, whose gruesome deaths bring the original story to its close, are reunited in heaven. That and a few other alterations changed the tone of the entire work, and when it was performed before a much tougher crowd back home in Italy seven years later, La Forza finally became a success.

Since then, it has become a standard at top opera houses around the world. But it has also taken on a new stigma: the belief, among some old-school opera singers, that Verdi's opus is cursed.

The stories are many, each one more foreboding than the last. La Forza's first performance was delayed nine months when its soprano came down with a grave illness. Theaters have inexplicably lost power during performances. Most dramatically, baritone Leonard Warren literally died on stage when he performed in the Met's 1960 production of the opera. He had just launched into an aria that begins, "Morir, tremenda cosa" ("To die, a terrible thing"). Before the song's end, Warren collapsed in full view of the entire audience, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Berger says he doesn't believe in the curse, but he does believe such a thing is possible — especially when the work is as disturbing as La Forza often is.

"There are many examples of this in music — the idea of the Diabolus in musica in the Middle Ages — the idea that if you played this combination of notes, you summon up the devil," he says. "People are singing along and spinning the notes and all of a sudden, they have some experience of, 'Turn around! Don't go there! This is out of your league; you don't know what you're messing with!' That is real. That happens."

Click the audio link on this page to hear the full version of this story, including a synopsis of La Forza's extravagant plot and selections of its music.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: This is a 1928 recording of the opera "La Forza del Destino" - "The Force of Destiny." It was written by Giuseppe Verdi. And 150 years ago on this day, he first mounted this opera on a stage in St. Petersburg. Now today, "La Forza" is considered one of Verdi's masterpieces, but it wasn't always that way. And then there's one other thing about La Forza - some in the opera world believe it's cursed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: More about that curse in a moment. But first, a little about the plot.

WILLIAM BERGER: It is an extravagant story. It's life on the edge and a little beyond, but never entirely beyond.

RAZ: That's William Berger of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the author of "Verdi With a Vengeance."

BERGER: It is the story of a man who is an outsider.

RAZ: His name: Don Alvaro.

BERGER: He is in Spain and, of course, is in love with an aristocratic lady named Leonora - you know, the way that happens - and has therefore incurred the wrath of her family. He is going to elope with her. And when her father is going to stop them, he throws down his pistol as if to disarm himself and say, do what you want with me, and the pistol goes off and kills the father.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Alvaro and Leonora soon flee the town but somehow, in the chaos, become separated. A year passes, and they still haven't found each other, so they give up, both believing the other is dead.

BERGER: And this is the sort of very rotten twist of fate that dogs these characters through to their demises. And that's what the story is about: how, if you are born under an unlucky star, this will be your destiny over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Now, even though Leonora and Alvaro had given up searching, Leonora's brother Carlo has not. He wants to avenge his father's death by killing both Alvaro and his own sister. So Carlo looks for them in a tavern, on a battlefield, and at a monastery, and he searches for years.

BERGER: The scenes deliberately do violence to the classical notions of unity - the Aristotelian unities that a great tragedy takes place, you know, within 24 hours and more or less in one location and this sort of thing. Forza is consciously taking these ideas and trashing them, almost in a bratty, punk rock sort of way.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

BERGER: At the very end, our three protagonists face off again - the two lovers and her brother.

RAZ: Alvaro and Carlo engage in a duel, and Alvaro delivers a fatal wound. But just before he dies, Carlo fulfills his vengeance against Leonora.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

BERGER: She dies, stabbed by the brother. And Alvaro commits suicide, jumps off a cliff.

RAZ: All three main characters are dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Now, that's how "La Forza del Destino" ended when it was performed 150 years ago in St. Petersburg. And the critics were harsh.

BERGER: People found it crazy. People found it emotionally incontinent.

RAZ: Again, William Berger.

BERGER: Part of it has to do with the extremes of the emotion and the abruptness with which they change, where it'll go from comedy to tragedy to absurdity to religiosity to drinking songs to hate.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Verdi considered the opera a flop. But he decided to give it another try, and he went back to his study to retool "La Forza." And so Verdi decided that instead of jumping to his death, Alvaro would live on to meet his true love again in heaven. And that - and a few other alterations - changed the tone of the entire work. And when it was performed before a much tougher crowd back home in Italy seven years later, "La Forza" finally became a success.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Since then, "La Forza" has become a standard at the top opera houses around the world - this despite the belief among some old school opera singers that this opera is cursed.

MARCELLO GIORDANI: I heard. I heard many stories from old singers, from old conductor, from old directors.

RAZ: That's the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. "La Forza's" very first performance was delayed nine months when its soprano came down with a horrible illness. Theaters have inexplicably lost power during performances. The great Franco Correlli, he would protect himself while singing the role of Alvaro. Some say he held a cross. Others say he held a very personal part of his anatomy. It's believed that the late Luciano Pavarotti wouldn't even touch the role of Alvaro. And at The Metropolitan Opera in New York where we reached Marcello Giordani...

GIORDANI: Something happened on stage years ago here at The Met.

RAZ: Baritone Leonard Warren died there in 1960 while performing the role of Carlo. He had just launched into an aria that begins...

LEONARD WARREN: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: (Foreign language spoken) - to die, a terrible thing. Before he end, Warren collapsed in full view of the entire audience, a victim of a cerebral hemorrhage, and, perhaps, a victim of the curse of "La Forza."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, even with the curse, Marcello Giordani has performed the role of Alvaro three times so far. He just did it again last month in Barcelona. Are you okay? Are you safe?

(LAUGHTER)

GIORDANI: No, I'm OK. I'm OK.

RAZ: OK. Nothing happened to you?

GIORDANI: No. Not yet. Not yet. Knock on wood.

RAZ: And for the record, Marcello does not believe in the curse. Neither does William Berger, but he does think that such a thing is possible.

BERGER: And if that's going to show up in any score, it is as plausible to me that it would be in "La Forza del Destino" as anywhere because there's something disturbing about the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

BERGER: There are many examples of this in music - the idea of the diabolus in musica in the Middle Ages, the idea that if you played this combination of notes, you summon up the devil, where people are singing along and spinning the notes and all of a sudden they have some experience of: Turn around. Don't go there. This is out of your league. You don't know what you're messing with. That is real. That happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino." It turns 150 years old today.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO")

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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