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Monday, March 06, 2006

The Force of Musical Obsession

A few months ago I posted a column here regarding the Yahoo! classical music chat room I visit with some regularity—regrettably not as often these days now that I have a day job. One of the perks we enjoy is playing music for the other visitors in the room. While there are no set play lists—and the variety of classical pieces one hears is impressive—Saturday nights have evolved into all-opera extravaganzas. I’m not sure how that transpired, but it’s a fun tradition and, naturally, I contribute where I can.

This past Saturday night there were only two of us playing music, plus an average of a dozen other chatters in the “room” over the course of several hours. For some reason things ended up as a Dueling Verdi scenario, with each of us playing various arias and ensemble pieces that escalated into a delightful version of one-upmanship.

My contributions included Jerome Hines singing Banquo’s aria from “Macbeth,” Carlo Bergonzi with the famous tenor aria from “Luisa Miller,” and the Act Two finale from “I Masnadieri” in a recording that features Joan Sutherland and Cornell MacNeil. My counterpart offered selections from “Traviata,” “Giovanna d’Arco” and “Trovatore,” among others.

It was the final piece he played, just as I was getting ready to log off the Internet for the night, which drove me to my DVD player in order to fulfill an instantaneous musical obsession. It struck an especially sensitive chord with me because the work had just been sung at the Met, received various reviews in the broader operatic blogosphere, and was found wanting—decried by many as a “warhorse,” and not in a good way.

I’ll be the first to admit that “La Forza del Destino” offers up a pretty lame story line. My wife calls it “the fatal ankle wound” opera, referring to the first-act demise of Leonora’s father due to an accidentally discharged firearm. There is also severe padding in the form of two crowd scenes that feature Preziosilla—a gypsy fortuneteller (is there any other kind?)—plus monks and penitents, a peddler of worthless goods, and assorted hangers-on.

Verdi composed “Forza” in 1862 as a commissioned work for the opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia. The version that is most often performed today, however, was changed considerably for its premiere in Italy. The original ending had Don Alvaro committing suicide following the deaths of Leonora and her brother, whereas the later version sees him live on in despair. After all, it may be a sin for a monk to kill the brother of his former lover, but it’s an even greater sin to do oneself in, so I gather.

But the music is incredibly compelling, especially since Verdi has created a thematic device that underscores the drama of his work. No matter what tangents the story takes, this undercurrent of sinister music— heard first in the overture and then at the beginning of each successive act—motivates the listener to believe that there truly may be some force of destiny out there in the universe.

There are confrontations galore throughout the opera—one army versus another, the Marquis of Calatrava (he of the fatal ankle wound) versus Don Alvaro, Leonora versus her brother Don Carlo, the Franciscan friars versus the peasants and, finally Alvaro versus Carlo.

However, the piece of music that spurred me into obsession involved none of these activities. Instead it was the closing soprano aria, “Pace, pace mio dio,” a contemplative song that ends on an impossibly high and ethereal note—something only Verdi could have conceived with this much impact.

I was compelled to drag out my DVD and head straight for the final scene of the opera. In this particular production a youngish Juan Pons is Don Carlo. The rest of the cast, from a 1984 Saturday matinee performance by the Metropolitan Opera, is nondescript and relatively unknown—except for Leonora. Leontyne Price was 57 years old in 1984, yet she sings this role as if twenty years younger. Words cannot describe the restrained power she invokes as she delivers her plaintive song while standing in front of the hermit’s cave that has been her home for decades (don’t ask!). Naturally I had to see the opera through to its conclusion, where she is fatally stabbed by her brother who, having dueled with Alvaro, was himself at death’s door—or in this case, death’s cave entrance. Then I had to “rewind” to the opening of Act II and Carlos’ aria where he discovers that the man who saved his life is, ironically and fatefully, the one who (a) killed his father and (b) defiled his sister. I love the part where he says, in effect, I pray that this guy survives his war wounds so that I can kill him. Now that’s vengeance!

Any contemporary Forza is a response to the stage-director-controlled opera world. Forza is singularly NOT about anything to do with plot, staging or drama. It is about vocal display - in the best way.

That's part of why it's never performed anymore. Stage directors aren't interested in a show that can't be well staged - why would they be? Also, we really don't have the singers who can handle it anymore, unless you assemble an all-star cast.

And it's one of my favorite works in all of opera.
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