There was a time when I daydreamed about La Forza del Destino without ever having heard a note of it. My earliest experiences of opera were not of live performance and were barely musical. While I paid fitful attention to the recordings and radio broadcasts that my eldest brother listened to with the devotion of a precocious musicologist, I was gripped more securely by the plot synopses found in his issues of Opera News and a well-worn copy of Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas. These seemed fairy tales of a peculiar sort, cruel but colorful, each set in its own alternate world where nearly every ending was “happily never after.” What the moral might be was never clear. The stories provided ample material for fantasy, even if only in glimmers and fragments. The bare outline of La Forza del Destino—with its sudden death and pursuit and flight, vows of revenge and impenetrable disguises, action unfolding across battlefields and remote mountain gorges—instigated a flurry of cloudily visualized scenes. The music came later, but the story lingered—or rather, not the story itself but the panoramic dimensions and fluid transformations it suggested.

When the Met announced its first production of Forza in eighteen years, those early associations stirred to life. Certain operas, if never previously seen on stage, can conjure a residual, nearly childish expectation of encountering the unknowable, and perhaps impossible, at first hand. One anticipates a seamlessness arising from the collision of a thousand and one elements, each perfectly distinct. It is a lot to ask for, and Forza would be a challenge in any era. Evidently it was so from the start, since it underwent radical revisions between its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1862 and the version performed at La Scala in Milan seven years later.

The source, Don Álvaro, or the Force of Destiny (1835), a pioneering Romantic drama by Ángel de Saavedra, the Duke of Rivas (a liberal Spanish politician newly returned from exile), teemed with improbable incident, but Verdi also incorporated a chunk of the army camp prologue to Friedrich Schiller’s Thirty Years’ War trilogy, Wallenstein (1800). This collage-like mixing of seemingly unrelated material is only one of the reasons that the opera’s dramatic structure has been variously characterized as sprawling, disjunct, unwieldy, incoherent, or implausible—and likewise one of the qualities that make the work so mysteriously suggestive.

The libretto zigzags through time and space, allowing the principal characters to fall from sight for an act at a time, and allowing peasants, soldiers, and itinerant peddlers to take center stage for long stretches as background turns into foreground. The gaps and ellipses and abrupt turnabouts might be perceived as prescient modernism, or a persistence of the earlier dramaturgy of Lope de Vega and Calderón, with its openness to coincidence and reversal, but they can hardly be dismissed as unaccountable missteps. They draw power from asymmetry, from arbitrary juxtapositions, and from the most extreme and paradoxical situations. It is an opera that grows stranger the closer you get to it.

The title suggests a philosophical statement, but its purport remains elusive. A great many things take place, but very little can be said to happen. As Peter Conrad has suggested, “After the opening scene, nothing of consequence occurs in Forza.”* For all its epic dimensions, its span of years, and its constantly shifting locations, it resembles those dreams in which the dreamer, despite desperate maneuvering and burrowing, is condemned to hover around the same spot. The force of destiny is embodied by a single regrettable mishap, over in an instant. Don Alvaro (Brian Jagde), preparing to elope with his beloved Leonora (the remarkable Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen), is surprised in her boudoir by her enraged father, the Marquis of Calatrava (Soloman Howard). To demonstrate that he means no harm, Alvaro throws down his loaded pistol; the gun goes off (“as guns will,” to quote Raymond Chandler) and the marquis is killed, surviving just long enough to hurl a curse at his distraught daughter.

From this brief event—an accidental pistol shot brutally interrupting the musical continuum—all else irresistibly follows, destiny here being indistinguishable from randomness. It comes in the midst of an opening act already remarkable for its anxious and broken rhythms, as Leonora’s nervous haste alternates with regretful pauses, and Alvaro’s heartfelt pleading comes close to angry exhortation. Even before the father’s disastrous intrusion, the lovers are struggling to spring into action and slip away.

Thereafter—while the opera ranges over swaths of Europe and the passage of years, with Alvaro and Leonora swept along separate paths through taverns and battlefronts and mountain fastnesses, changing identities at each turn and seeking out different ways to hide from the consequences of catastrophe—the drama seems rooted in furiously eddying stasis. The ending has been in place from the beginning, not only for Leonora and Alvaro but for their nemesis, Leonora’s brother Don Carlo (Igor Golovatenko), bent on avenging his father’s death by killing both of them and, as if gripped by a spell, incapable of deviating from his murderous program. The recurrent musical motifs are like the continual excavation of ever deeper recesses of suffering: the pain of a passion never consummated and a vengeance that feels like a suicide. The prolonged desperation is sustained at such an urgent pitch as to create the impression of hurtling rapidity.


In Mariusz Treliński’s production at the Met, that rapidity seems almost doubled by the continual movement of a revolving stage and a dense clustering of visual cues and flourishes. It can feel like watching two operas at once, text (by Verdi, resplendently sung and played) and commentary (by Treliński) superimposed one on the other, often diverging, sometimes jostling, sometimes powerfully and, as the evening proceeds, sublimely joining. Such dissociation is not uncommon in the era of high-concept direction, but not always to such bold effect. Treliński is telling Verdi’s story but a story of his own as well, not only interpreting but inserting himself as full collaborator. Having begun as a filmmaker, as an opera director he in effect continues to be one, and in Forza, an opera that already aspires to the capaciousness of a novel, he finds apt material. The periodically interpolated video clips function like episodes within a larger movie, not so much clarifying the narrative as hoisting it more decisively into the contemporary world. At the same time they evoke other cinematic reference points: war is signaled by helicopters out of Apocalypse Now, Leonora driving through the rain in search of refuge irresistibly recalls Janet Leigh approaching the Bates Motel in Psycho, and Alvaro in modern military gear advancing through a snowy forest might be a scene from a Soviet war movie, if not news footage from Ukraine. (Treliński has acknowledged the Ukraine invasion as a reference point.)

The freedom of approach is clear from the start, as an elaborate pantomime is set in motion before the first note of the overture has sounded. Leonora, in a purple gown, smoking discontentedly, storms out of her father’s hotel. (The Marquis of Calatrava has here become the proprietor of the gaudy Hotel Calatrava, and an autocratic generalissimo as well.) To the thundering of the overture’s six repeated opening chords, the stage revolves to reveal General Calatrava’s well-attended birthday celebration, at which military regalia and a looming fascistic emblem give the tone. An intricately choreographed dumb show follows in which Leonora signals her seething unhappiness to her father and others, while the overture comes close to being mere soundtrack for this three-dimensional silent movie. While the party continues—the general is drunk and the atmosphere is getting more louche—Leonora makes her escape as the stage turns again. These countless revolutions are designed to resemble camera movements permitting scene changes in the midst of peripheral action, perhaps in homage to Alfred Hitchcock, if not Max Ophüls. The mood is of permanent shifting—the whirligig of time and circumstance—with no situation stable for long.

The initial impression of bifurcation, of a split between what is seen and what is heard, sharpens as Calatrava staggers into Leonora’s room and collapses on the couch, his body language at odds with the grave musical phrases in which he addresses her, more fitting for Verdi’s solemn and inflexible grandee. Likewise the sullenness she is made to display toward him jars with the hesitation and ambivalent attachment suggested by what she sings. It is a matter of adjusting to a reconceived libretto, and the disparities take some getting used to. On his first entrance Alvaro shows little of the defiant pride of a racial outcast and political enemy (in the libretto he is the proscribed offspring of a rebellious Spanish viceroy and an Inca princess); his demeanor is more that of a shaggy hitchhiker sneaking into an upscale establishment where he is visibly out of place. By the time the opera is done, Alvaro, like Leonora, will have displayed many contradictory sides of his nature, but he might at least make his entrance with a trace of heroic self-assurance, however short-lived.

The considerations of honor and lineage that inform the libretto are no longer operative in Treliński’s version of the modern world, where echoes of twentieth-century fascism mingle with premonitions of impending global downfall. It is a landscape of brutality and chaos that leaves no one unscarred. The sleek ballrooms and officers’ clubs of a military regime (with entertainment provided by eerie dancers in long-eared bunny masks) give way to chain-link encampments and bombed-out subways. The entrance to the monastery where Leonora ultimately takes refuge is no Gothic chamber but an arid office resembling the reception desk of a highway motel. Even the abbot, Father Guardiano, the only character in the opera offering much benevolence, takes on a harsher personality, as he administers tough love to Leonora in the form of a slap in the face and a gamut of ritual flagellation. Guardiano and Calatrava are both sung by Howard, a doubling that serves to underscore Leonora’s post-traumatic guilt.


The individual destinies of Leonora and Alvaro and Carlo are subsumed under a collective fate. The war in which Alvaro fights has in this staging been precipitated by Calatrava’s death, and the beggars outside the monastery in the last act are refugees finding shelter among the wreckage. The catastrophe is universal. It is as if Treliński had lifted Leonora and Alvaro from their nightmare into the heart of our own, transposing them to another century to undergo further bad luck eerily mirroring their former lives, like sorrowing ghosts trapped in an inescapable karmic cycle. This time they have turned up in a world that seems too dark to survive much longer.

The wonder is the overwhelming vitality of a work so steeped in mournfulness and defeat. The opera is constructed to emphasize the mutual isolation of lovers whose union is shattered at the outset and who are reunited only at the end of the last act, barely with time to recognize each other and register what is going on. For much of the opera each assumes the other is already dead. Alvaro is absent from the second act and Leonora from the third, and the sequestration positions their arias as cries across unbreachable barriers to someone whose past actions and motives have become unsoundable, if they are alive at all. Within their private hells they grieve, beseech an invisible power for help, attempt to retreat from life altogether. They share a longing for death. In the middle acts they are linked only by Carlo as he roams over vast distances in search of his prey.

If Treliński’s production set in motion relentlessly encroaching forces of oppression, the central performances had an exceptional clarity and intensity that made them seem acts of resistance, assertions of inner life in the face of an increasingly depersonalized public sphere. Davidsen easily dominated the evening; her overwhelming presence elicited sustained applause more than once. Vocally she produced not an effect of warmth but clear and glistening blades of sound articulating anguish with passionate precision. Her Leonora was an uncanny and disturbing figure, wounded beyond retrieval yet projecting the energy of raging life. Jagde and Golovatenko navigated impeccably the finely charted gradations of Alvaro and Carlo’s changing relationship, from brotherly bonding to fatal showdown.

The high level of all the performances did justice to Verdi’s realism even in the midst of the most extreme dramatic reversals. At this stage of his career Verdi really was composing a novel in music, its central points isolated streams of consciousness and taking place in the aftermath of a crisis after which no action can change anything. If La Forza del Destino is an epic, it is an epic of interiority. Davidsen, Jagde, and Golovatenko each charted with the utmost exactness the leaps and retreats of a distinct emotional inscape. Carlo’s extended wavering as he is about to uncover the secret of Alvaro’s identity, culminating in an outburst of self-awareness—“I see myself!”—in Golovatenko’s handling becomes pivotal, the last (and immediately truncated) moment when a human decision might change the course of events.

There is then an opera that works from the outside in—Treliński’s production, with its constant suggestion of alternative connections, alternative motives—and an opera that moves from the inside out, staking itself on music as ultimate expressive language. The first encases its characters, the second asserts despite all odds their triumphant pushback, as if the external stage environment itself constituted the destiny that crushes them. Any interpretation is in a way an imposition that music—this music—resists. This could be said of any production, but all the more so of one so abundantly inventive. The resulting split consciousness only underscores the extraordinary and contradictory richness of Verdi’s work, which could never be reduced to a simple statement or moral parable.

No wonder the opera has two different endings, and Verdi may not ever have been entirely sure which to prefer. The rarely performed St. Petersburg version ends, like Rivas’s play, with Alvaro (who has killed Carlo and failed to save Leonora from her brother’s vengeance) hurling himself to his death from a rocky precipice, declaring himself “a demon who was sent by Hell.” In the revised ending performed, as is customary, at the Met, Alvaro survives to find religious consolation at the very last instant. This ought to make a great difference, but either ending could work. By then the opera has raked up regions of feeling that cannot be conveniently or conventionally resolved. It seems to hang in the air unfinished.