Overtones: Verdi’s Big Operatic Moments Triumph Over Absurdity

Music of La forza del destino, due in PBS version, counterbalances plot limitations.

[Editor's Note: "Overtones" is a weekly opinion column by Washington Post classical-music critic emeritus Joe McLellan.]

Contributing Editor Joe McLellan writes:

We do not expect opera librettos (particularly those from the 19th century) to be models of logic, consistency and psychological depth — at least not if we’ve spent a lot of time in opera houses and paid attention to plot and character as well as music.

But operatic music often triumphs over operatic absurdity; that’s why this exotic and irrational form of entertainment is flourishing today.

A great opera that pushes triumphantly past the limits of reason is Giuseppe Verdi‘s La forza del destino (“The Power of Fate”), which PBS will telecast on “Great Performances” on Wednesday.

Its plot is a hopeless mishmash of silly misunderstandings, disguises and mistaken identities, crazy obsessions and improbable situations, including a soprano who dresses as a man and becomes a monk, and a baritone who unwittingly becomes the best friend of a man he has vowed to kill.

The story of La forza del destino is little more than a pretext for musical outbursts. But the music has a power and glory that make audiences accept the libretto’s problems.

These problems are a major part of the special interest in the “Great Performances” production, which was videotaped at the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), under the expert baton of Valery Gergiev.

Irrational And Thrilling

With occasional exceptions, opera has never been enjoyed primarily for its rational presentation of a well-plotted story. The creation and exploitation of big moments is what attracts big audiences: the “Sextet” from Lucia, “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto; Richard Wagner‘s “Ride of the Valkyries”; Giacomo Puccini‘s “Che gelida manina” or “Un bel di”; Carmen‘s “Habanera,” and so on.

People remember these moments more vividly and happily than occasional plot refinements such as the ingenious denouement of Cosi fan tutte or the ambivalent conclusion of Capriccio.

One big moment is not usually enough to keep an opera alive, though the number itself may survive in concerts and on recital recordings. But if an opera has three or four really good arias or ensembles, the public will probably treasure it in spite of any absurdities in the libretto.

Perhaps even because of the absurdities. Opera thrives on extreme situations, and there’s nothing like a little absurdity to generate extreme situations. La forza del destino has at least a half-dozen big moments; different people will count different items.

Most of the heavy stuff is sung by the heroine Leonora (Maria Gorchakova), her hapless lover Don Alvaro (Gegam Grigorian) or her brother Don Carlo (Nikolai Putilin), who has sworn to kill Alvaro because Alvaro accidentally killed Leonora’s father.

Some big comic scenes feature a Gypsy fortune-teller, Preziosilla (Marianna Tarasova), who is vigorously recruiting men for a war against Germany — a subject dear to Verdi’s heart during the Risorgimento, Italy’s struggle for independence. Also used for comic relief is Fra Melitone (Georgy Zastavny), a monk who behaves more like a monkey.

The Trouble With Leonora

Operas with heroines named Leonora (or Leonore) who dress as men seem to have posed special problems for 19th-century composers. Beethoven spent years fussing with his opera Leonore. It was originally produced in three acts under that title in 1805. He revised it drastically and repeatedly in the following years until its final version appeared in two acts with the title Fidelio in 1814. Beethoven’s struggles with Leonore are commemorated in our concert life today by the existence of Leonore Overtures No. 1, 2 and 3, as well as a Fidelio Overture.

Verdi also tackled the Leonora problem three times. His first Leonora was in Il trovatore (1853) and needs no further discussion here. Leonoras No. 2 and 3 are in La forza del destino, which he composed in 1862 for a premiere in St. Petersburg and revised for a new premiere at La Scala, Milan, in 1869.

The production on “Great Performances” uses the seldom-heard 1862 version, and hard-core Verdi fans will have a great time comparing the 1862 Forza (we might call it Leonora No. Two) with the 1869 Leonora No. Three.

A Different Ending

The most important difference comes right at the end, which Verdi finally found too bloody for his taste. In the 1862 version, Carlo, Leonora and Alvaro all die in the last couple of minutes. For the 1869 version, Verdi let Alvaro live and closed off with the pious observation that Leonora was dead but surely in heaven. Clearly, there is no way to find a compromise between these two treatments. Either the tenor lives or he dies.

The general preference for the 1869 version seems reasonable, though it is based mostly on unfamiliarity. But some good things are lost if the St. Petersburg version is ignored. In that version, after seeing Leonora die, Alvaro despairs and commits suicide with what is undoubtedly the greatest operatic line ever sung by a tenor jumping off a cliff: “Earth, open beneath my feet! Hell, swallow me up! Let the heavens fall! Let the human race die!”