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Giuseppe Verdi
La Forza del destino Overture

Giuseppe (Fortunino Francesco) Verdi

(Born in Roncole, near Parma, Italy, 1813; died in Milan, 1901)

Overture to La Forza del Destino

In 1861, Verdi received a commission from the Imperial Theater of St. Petersburg for a new opera.  Like Nabucco and many of his previous operas, Verdi turned again to a loosely veiled theme of Italy’s current struggle that had consumed much of the 19th C. – of Italy’s Independence and Unification.  He also returned to one of the great librettists of the day, Francesco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876), a long-time friend and librettist for nine of Verdi’s previous operas.  Piave based his La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) on an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (“Don Alvaro, or the Power of Fate”), by the Spanish Enlightenment author and politician, Ángel de Saavedra.

La Forza follows the plight of two ill-fated lovers, Alvaro and Leonora, and Verdi sets the story into the larger context of Italy’s quest for independence from Hapsburg Austria around 1850.  The opera begins with Alvaro and Leonora being hopelessly in love, but Leonora’s father, a Spanish Marquis (dignitary), cannot accept Alvaro’s “half-caste” Peruvian-Incan blood as a sufficient lineage for his daughter, and so, the two lovers attempt to elope.  The father discovers their plan and confronts them, during which Alvaro’s gun accidentally fires and kills the father.  Thus is set into motion the current of Fate that will dog the steps of the two lovers forever.  Leonora’s brother, Carlo, vows a bitter vengeance against both her and Alvaro.  The lovers separate in despair; Alvaro to Spain’s army to aid in Italy’s struggle (this detail was, in part, why Verdi chose this play to adapt); Leonora to the church, soon retreating to a cave as a hermit in the Spanish mountains near a church in Córdoba, Spain; Carlo determined to hunt them down.

Alvaro is relentlessly pursued by Carlo.  His hounding leads Alvaro to the church to take his vows, but even this sanctuary cannot abate Carlo’s blind hate.  Over the course of about 6 years, Fate has kept Alvaro and Leonora apart, both assuming the other dead, with Leonora fading away in torment in her cave and Alvaro still distraught over the fateful accident that changed their destiny.  Meanwhile, Carlo finds Alvaro again and goads him into a sword fight, ending in Carlo’s mortal wounds.  He pleads for his last rites, but Alvaro refuses, and as it so often happens in opera, Fate has arranged for them to find each other just outside Leonora’s cave.  Unaware of the cave’s occupant, Alvaro beseeches its “hermit” to administer rites to Carlo.  In a flash of recognition, all are stunned to see each other once again, and shocked by the realization that they are ruined by time and regret.  Yet hate, ever powerful, leads Carlo to manage his last strength into avenging his father by fatally stabbing Leonora.  The opera ends in a moving trio between the lovers and a priest as Leonora’s last breaths ebb away into Destiny’s currents.

Verdi’s original 1862 version of La Forza del Destino came with a fairly short and simple prelude as the curtain opener.  But by 1869, Verdi extensively reworked the entire opera, including writing this full-scale Overture that we hear tonight.  Both the opera, and its masterful Overture, have been a mainstay in opera and concert halls since.

The new 1869 Overture intertwines themes from the opera into its fabric – specifically, the swiftly rising motive of “Fate” that we hear just after the opening chords.  But first, Verdi gives us three opening salvos, proclaimed in the brass, to act as calls to attention to the audience and to symbolize the crushing power of Fate.  The chords are repeated and then we are swept into Verdi’s extraordinary musical journey of fate and tragedy as the violins and cellos simmer with the “Fate” motive – the four rapidly rising notes that repeat three times, giving the feel of the waves in a tempestuous tide.  Meanwhile, the trombones, bassoons and basses thrum out racing heartbeats beneath.  Following the second round of those introductory brass chords comes a gentle theme in the winds.  This theme is Alvaro’s song, when he leaves Italy’s war and searches for a new life.  Cleverly, Verdi uses the Fate motive as a countermelody underneath – the effect is exciting and tragic, as Alvaro’s hopes try to survive Fate’s undertow. 

After about a minute, the next theme arrives, beautiful, beleaguered, hovering above tremolo strings (quickly repeated notes in the strings creating a shimmering effect).  This is Leonora’s aria in Act II when she pleads “Deh, non abbandonar signor, per pietà” (“Lord have mercy on me, do not leave me”).  She searches for comfort with her pining melody, but she must sing over her fear and agitation, as represented by the tremolo strings.  Here, too, the inexorable Fate motive reappears and begins to agitate the moment even more.  A fourth theme is soon after introduced, energetic and wonderfully lyrical, and heard first in the clarinet over the accompaniment of two harps.  And yet again, the Fate motive crawls into its musical fabric.  A brief brass chorale appears, reflecting the prayers of the Monastery in Córdoba, and then, the previous themes and Fate race to an exhilarating finish.  The pacing and balance alone are stunning achievements, but most memorable is this Overture’s emotive strength – once it launches into its first theme, the listener is entirely swept up in Verdi’s swirling currents of Destiny.

La Forza follows the plight of two ill-fated lovers, Alvaro and Leonora, and Verdi sets the story into the larger context of Italy’s quest for independence from Hapsburg Austria around 1850.  The opera begins with Alvaro and Leonora being hopelessly in love, but Leonora’s father, a Spanish Marquis (dignitary), cannot accept Alvaro’s “half-caste” Peruvian-Incan blood as a sufficient lineage for his daughter, and so, the two lovers attempt to elope.  The father discovers their plan and confronts them, during which Alvaro’s gun accidentally fires and kills the father.  Thus is set into motion the current of Fate that will dog the steps of the two lovers forever.  Leonora’s brother, Carlo, vows a bitter vengeance against both her and Alvaro.  The lovers separate in despair; Alvaro to Spain’s army to aid in Italy’s struggle (this detail was, in part, why Verdi chose this play to adapt); Leonora to the church, soon retreating to a cave as a hermit in the Spanish mountains near a church in Córdoba, Spain; Carlo determined to hunt them down.

Program notes © Max Derrickson