Verdi's The Force of Destiny, an opera of chance and chaos

La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi
Zurich Opera
Zurich Opera House

In Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, several scenes are set on the battlefield with soldiers and those displaced by war caught up in the struggles of Italy and Spain against the Germans. The desire to destroy the enemy, the hatred and enmity that comes with war has a parallel with one of the main plot lines, that of the hatred expressed by Don Carlo who is bent on revenge for the death of his father. Not only does he sing about violence and revenge, the cast also sings about war and battles with several arias and choruses including War is a fun thing and Long live Madness.

Verdi is generally thought of as a misogynist because most of his female characters meet tragic ends. But he is actually more of a misanthropist – he doesn’t really like mankind and its path to destruction. He doesn’t like the male characters in his operas either – they are never genuine heroes but rather seriously flawed. This is what ensures his operas are genuinely tragic because everyone dies or suffers a moral or spiritual downfall.

La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny or the Power of Fate) is the only opera where the composer has titled his work with an idea or concept but it is a relevant one. It means that in his world individuals make decisions and choices that have repercussions. Bad decisions, even slight transgressions, have to be punished. It’s a moral order that permeated much 19th-century art and literature of the period.

Verdi had other beliefs that come out in his operas. One that is obvious in La Forza del Destino is the need for Italy to be rid of the Austrian oppression even though this was never directly addressed. Instead, they had made a bad decision and needed to be punished. Several of Verdi's early operas were openly political, directly expressing the Italian struggle for national independence and even though his later operas became less overtly political, the themes of personal conflict and private passion such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and La Forza del Destino have broad political settings, with important public issues at their heart.

The plot is remarkably simple, although in this production director Andrea Homaki has valiantly attempted to make it confusing.

The opera opens with the Marquis of Calatrava reminding his daughter, Leonora, that she will not marry Don Alvaro, who is a South American Indian. When Don Alvaro confronts the marquis, he accidentally kills him. Leonora and Alvaro run away and are, rather inexplicably, separated. Leonora’s brother, Carlo, goes after them to seek revenge for his father’s death. Leonora ends up in a hermit’s cave outside a monastery having pretended to be a man and much later, by a quirk of fate, Alvaro ends up nearby. Then, as fate would have it, Don Carlo chances on them. Don Carlo kills Leonora and Alvaro kills Don Carlo.

The political dimension of the plot is highlighted by having the chorus dressed in black shirts, recalling the Black Shirts of fascist Italy. They also wear red ties in a nod to Garibaldi’s red shirts. While the chorus members at one point play the part of soldiers they also have to be servants, peasants and friars, making for some confusion as they retain the same costumes throughout. Their appearance was somewhere between that of a group of wandering circus clowns and the mad cast of a production of Marat/Sade.

Another confusing aspect of the work is the way in which Christof Fischesser, who plays the part of the marquis, becomes the friar Guardiano, wearing the same costume. It may be a clever device for the father to become the father figure/confessor but is not great for sensible plot development.

The impressive set, which features a huge room-sized box on stage consisting of moveable panels, opened to reveal a large space, which served as battlefield and church. While being a useful device occasionally, most of the time it interfered with the action and stage dynamics.

Despite some of the problems with set and staging, the production provided some exceptional singing and some remarkable performances.

Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmana who has now appeared at most opera houses and was made an Honorary Artist by Vladimir Putin in 2006 sang the role of Leonora. She was impressive both in her singing and acting. In the opening scenes she looked diminutive surrounded by the large oppressive walls of the box but her voice was intense, flecked with raw emotion conveying distress and love.

Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente as Don Alvaro was imposing, notably singing Life is Hell for an unhappy man, his wretched voice wracked with pain and desperation. George Petean as Don Carlo also produced some stirring singing. The two of them were most impressive when singing their duo about camaraderie, with a mix of macho posturing and battlefield bonding.

Christof Fischesser’s thunderous bass singing both as the count as well as Padre Guardiano was riveting and he invested strong emotion into the voice.

The three interfering “fates” of Preziosilla (J’Nai Bridges), Fra Melitone (Ruben Drole) and Mastro Trabuco (Jamez McCorkle) in their exotic costumes added a well-judged comic touch to the opera, with some powerful and idiosyncratic singing and acting.

Conductor Fabio Luisi ensured the music of Verdi played its part in this dramatic, if at times incongruous, production.

Future opera productions of Zurich Opera: November, Cosi van Tutti (Mozart); November, Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck); December, Sweeney Todd (Sondheim); February 2019, Le Grande Macabre (Ligeti); April 2019, Manon (Massenet); April 2019, The Turk in Italy (Rossini); and May 2019, La Sonnambula (Bellini).

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