Lise Davidsen as Leonora in Verdi's La forza del destino (Paola Kudacki/Met Opera).

Watching La forza del destino, Giuseppe Verdi’s sprawling 1869 opera about fate’s relentless pursuit of a single family line in eighteenth-century Spain, you can’t help but wonder: Whose side is the composer on?

Does he sympathize with the characters on stage, many of whom cling to their private faith and seek refuge in the might of the institutional Church? Or is Verdi instead aligned with fate itself, stalking his protagonists from the orchestra pit (the score’s “fate” motif, introduced in the overture, is one of the composer’s most memorable) and transforming moments of religious calm into preludes for bloodshed?

A new staging in New York—the first in eighteen years—by Polish director Mariusz Treliński suggests that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The landmark production, featuring a star-studded cast conducted by the Met’s musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, offers audiences the rare chance to ponder the paradoxes at the heart of what is often considered the most outwardly “Catholic” of Verdi’s operas. 

If Verdi is universally acknowledged as an icon of Italian nationalism and emblem of Romanticism, his relationship with Catholicism is much more complicated. He had a profound (and very public) admiration for the liberal religious vision of Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, to whom he dedicated the Requiem, his most significant sacred (if non-liturgical) work, and his later operas show a marked turn toward prayer and interiority. But in his personal faith, Verdi was more elusive. As his wife Giuseppina Strepponi wrote to a friend in 1872, “he’s the soul of honesty, he understands and feels every noble and delicate sentiment; yet for all that, he allows himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly not much of a believer.” Verdi’s friend, librettist Arrigo Boito, concurred: “​​one should take care not to present him as Catholic in the political and strictly theological sense of the word: nothing could be further from the truth.”

Verdi had his reasons: as a temporal power, the institutional Church was irreconcilable with the Risorgimento politics of Italian unification. Yet Verdi, for all his anticlericalism and abhorrence of ecclesial bureaucracy, remained fixated on the Church’s message of grace and salvation. What makes La forza del destino such a powerful work is the way it seems to show Verdi grappling with this conflict in real time, dwelling alongside his characters in a kind of in-betweenness as they engage with various forms of prayer, religious vocation, and ritual. He never pronounces on any “correct” version of faith: for Verdi it’s always the drama that matters.

La forza del destino bears that out repeatedly. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s tragic plot, adapted from a work by the Spanish playwright Ángel de Saavedra, is just as complicated as the opera’s characters. The first act begins with the forbidden romance between the noblewoman Leonora di Vargas (soprano Lise Davidsen)—who most fully channels Verdi’s nuanced dialogue with Catholicism—and Don Alvaro (tenor Brian Jagde), a half-Spanish, half-Incan prince. The pair plan to escape Leonora’s domineering father, the Marquis of Calatrava, but are foiled when he catches them together. Alvaro throws down his gun in surrender; but it fires accidentally and shoots the Marquis, who dies cursing the pair. This activates the inescapable churn of fate that dogs the characters through to the end. The brunt of its machinations are borne by Leonora’s brother Carlo (baritone Igor Golovatenko), who quests (in and out of disguise) through Spain and Italy to avenge the death of his father and sister. 

If Verdi is universally acknowledged as an icon of Italian nationalism and emblem of Romanticism, his relationship with Catholicism is much more complicated.

Leonora is still alive, of course, though Carlo doesn’t know it. After the accident she seeks shelter at the Madonna degli Angeli monastery, where, on bended knee, she prays to the Blessed Virgin, asking for forgiveness for her father’s death and for the strength to forget Alvaro. She’s soon received by two of Verdi’s most vivid clerical characters: the reactionary, finger-wagging Fra Melitone, and his more gracious superior, Padre Guardiano. After initially suggesting she profess religious vows, Guardiano grants Leonora’s request to live out the rest of her days as a solitary ascetic in a nearby cave. Her prayer, which floats gently over two harps and a male chorus of monks, is the first and only moment of stillness Verdi gives us in the opera’s tumultuous first act. There’s a mystical, inspired selflessness in it, as Leonora’s earlier imperatives to the Virgin—forgive me, don’t abandon me—give way to serene trust.

We don’t hear from Leonora again until the end of the fourth act, when she emerges from her cave exhausted and dejected to sing her famous aria, “Pace, pace, mio dio” (“Peace, peace, my God”). Her voice materializes almost miraculously out of churning repetitions of the fate motif. But by now Leonara’s solitude has proven ruinous. Her world-weary lament culminates in a fanatical, paranoiac b-flat “Maledizione!” (“Curse!”) as Leonora thinks she hears someone approaching. 

In fact, it’s two people: Carlo and Alvaro, dueling again after their first encounter on the battlefield at the historical Battle of Velletri in the previous act. Alvaro, unbeknownst to Leonora, has also sought refuge as a monk at the same convent. He mortally wounds Carlo in the fight, who, in turn, stabs Leonora. An earlier version of La forza del destino had resolved this situation dramatically, with Alvaro cursing God and leaping off a cliff in devastation with a distant chorus of monks chanting an ominous Miserere. But this final version, which premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1869, takes a quieter route. In a spellbindingly calm trio for Leonora, Alvaro, and Guardiano, Leonora dies. Alvaro believes that her death has redeemed him for the death of her father; the curtain slowly falls as Guardiano commends her soul to heaven.

The intermittent thrust of excitement and intrigue in Verdi’s score is partly what makes its moments of stillness so affecting. Treliński’s new production admittedly leans more into the opera’s expansive, intermittently coherent depictions of war and violence—here adapted to conjure a contemporary totalitarian state—rather than its rarer moments of contemplation. When the latter do occur, the emphasis is on the spectacle of asceticism and corporal punishment over clemency and grace. In Act II’s Madonna degli Angeli scene, for example, Leonora has her hair shorn and her hands whipped as she kneels beneath a spooky, floating CGI Madonna projected above. (It elicited more than a few laughs on opening night.) But even if Treliński’s pared-down Forza is bleaker and lonelier than usual, it shows a persistent smartness and subtlety. Its melodrama spills out over the stage, melding orchestral music and diegetic noise to a satisfying, unifying effect.

It’s largely the phenomenal voices of the two leads that make this possible. Jagde’s beefy sound remains cohesive and forceful across his range, while you can practically feel Davidsen’s—rounded but piercing, dramatically expressive—in your solar plexus. Her “Pace, pace, mio Dio” (which Treliński, originally a film director, relocates from a mountain cave to a bombed-out subway station conveniently indicating “Trinity Ave”) overflows with plaintiveness and frenzy. The applause was so overwhelming that Davidsen briefly broke character and acknowledged the crowd with a smile. 

But competent performances abound in the Met’s new Forza. Carlo, bent on revenge as he is, usually ends up being portrayed as a mustache-twirling villain. Instead, Golovatenko, singing with steadiness and style, gives us a more wounded, human version. Bass Soloman Howard performs double duty, singing generously as both the Marquis of Calatrava (firm and forceful) and Padre Guardiano (magisterial and forthright). And while it’s hard to look at the stingy, sanctimonious priest Fra Melitone without thinking of Pope Francis’s condemnation of the “scourge” of clericalism—when distributing alms, Melitone refers to the needy as “lowlifes”—bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi balances Melitone’s unkindness with a dash of comedy, making this crotchety character both more palatable and more real.

Such layered ambiguity is entirely appropriate to Verdi’s vision, in which inescapable grace always follows ineluctable chaos. That Verdi asks his audiences to sit with the discomfort of those two poles in La forza del destino is not unique to his operas, though making prayer and penance the overt vehicles for that meditation certainly is. The Met’s slick new staging may not help us settle the question of Verdi’s faith. But that’s for the best: in his operas Verdi was more interested in the complexities and contradictions of being human.

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Harry Rose is a PhD student in the Italian studies department at Brown University. He has written about opera and classical voice for Parterre Box, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

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