Lise Davidsen as Leonora in Verdi’s ‘La Forza del Destino’

Paola Kudacki/Met Opera

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The Met’s New ‘Therapeutic’ Forza Is a Disaster

A modern re-imagining turns tragedy to farce

David P. Goldman
March 08, 2024
Lise Davidsen as Leonora in Verdi's ‘La Forza del Destino’

Paola Kudacki/Met Opera

In the woke environment of the arts in New York City, where everything is and must always be about race, the Metropolitan Opera has somehow taken the one opera in the standard repertoire that is explicitly about race and transformed it into a ham-handed Freudian tale about a girl with daddy issues. The Feb. 26 premiere of a misguided update of Giuseppe Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, reimagined by the Polish filmmaker Mariusz Trelínsky, was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s less glorious moments. Freudian images are layered on with a trowel, past the point of absurdity, without a nod to the dramatic material, its historical context, and Verdi’s somber, moving score, which is given an incongruously perky reading by the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Despite its contrived Romantic plotting, La Forza del Destino remains one of theater’s most convincing love stories, because it is much more than a love story: It is a portrait of a doomed society that destroys its children. The terrible love that consumes Leonora and Alvaro—love that is as strong as death and harsh as the grave—doesn’t occur randomly on dating apps. It surges when lovers see in the other the solution to intolerable life circumstances—in Leonora’s case, the stench of decaying nobility, and in Alvaro’s, the stigma of racial mixture. Leonora wants out, and Alvaro wants in, and each represents salvation and redemption to the other—and that is why their love is so fierce, and so doomed. Historical context is everything in this opera.

Verdi’s source was the wildly popular 1835 drama by the Marquis of Rivas, the preeminent Spanish liberal politician of his generation and briefly his country’s prime minister. Its title, La Fuerza del Sino, should be rendered, The Force of Fate, rather than Destiny. This distinction is characteristically Jewish. The standard Spanish language sources treat sino and destino as synonyms, but the leading Orthodox website for Spanish-speaking Jews, Mesilot ha-Torá, offers a translation of an essay by Rabbi Avi Weiss on the critical distinction between sino and destino. While fate casts each of us into a dimension of life we cannot control, destiny, writes Weiss, following Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “is an active existence in which humanity confronts the environment into which she or he was cast … Humanity’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, an existence that is passive and influenced to an existence that is active and influential.”

Greek tragedy knows only fate, because, as Heraclitus said, a man’s mores are his guiding spirit (usually translated as “character is destiny”). The lovers’ desperate passion for each other stems from their hope of rising above a decaying society that nonetheless will destroy them. The best modern tragedy, from Fernando de Rojas’ crypto-Jewish drama La Celestina through Shakespeare and Schiller, tells us that it could have been otherwise, and the fault lies not in the stars but in us.

Baritone Igor Golavatenko as the avenging Don Carlo delivered a persuasive, note-perfect rendering of his role.The Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen sang the lead role of Leonora, and has a gorgeous instrument, at least in the middle and high registers, but inconsistent control of it. At her best she is “electrifying,” as the Met declares in its advertising, but that is partly due to the uncertainty as to whether she will nail a high note with precision or lose it in a wobble. She is a brilliant and convincing singing actress, and a commanding stage presence, but not a vocalist of the stature of Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Deborah Voigt, and other great Leonoras of the Met’s past. Verdi demands a soprano with a powerful low register, where Davidsen is barely audible. As her paramour Alvaro, tenor Brian Jagde improved steadily through the evening and gave a moving conclusion to the opera. Mezzo Judit Kutasi wobbled her way painfully through the role of Preziosilla.

Although it follows the conventional division into musical numbers, La Forza del Destino nonetheless integrates its musical elements more successfully than any Italian opera that preceded it. Verdi repurposes some of his strongest musical elements for dramatic effect. Compare (at 23:10) Leonora’s defiant declaration of love for the mixed-race Alvaro—“I will follow you to the ends of the earth!”—to her resignation to a life of solitude and penitence (at 1:05). This is not a Wagnerian leitmotif, in which a snatch of music retains its connotation whenever it is repeated, but quite the opposite, a transformation of the music’s dramatic implications that reflects the inner changes of the character.

Several complete versions of Forza are available on YouTube, including a 1958 television broadcast with English subtitles from Naples’ Teatro San Carlo with a young Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli. My favorite is a 1957 audio recording with the great tenor Giuseppi di Stefano and the incomparable Leyla Gencer as Leonora, whom I heard in this role at the Verona Arena in 1967.

Forza ranks No. 11 in performances among Verdi’s operas during the past five seasons (2019-23) according to, but its overture is the most frequently performed by far as a standalone concert piece, and with good reason. Opera overtures typically are a pastiche of tunes from the opera; Forza’s overture, composed for the 1869 La Scala production, is an integrated musical whole. The listener has the impression that Verdi reproduced the tragedy in his orchestral score, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Spain’s national tragedy, and the personal tragedy of the opera’s doomed lovers, was the limpieza de sangre—purification of blood—Spain’s obsession 500 years before the Nazis. Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, the same year that it founded the New World empire that would corrupt it irredeemably. Spain’s aristocrats lived off the mines of the New World, enslaving large parts of the indigenous population. Fernand Braudel calculated that all of the bullion Spain extracted from the New World and then some went via Genoa and Venice to China to buy silks and spices, in an orgy of nouveau riche display that lasted the better part of two centuries before the money ran out.

Peru had won its independence from Spain in 1826, only nine years before Rivas’ play appeared; Spain did not recognize its independence until 1869. The Jews were a distant memory by then, but the issue of Spanish vs. native ancestry and the collapse of the Spanish Empire were both vivid in the public mind. Spain clung to the remnants of its possessions in the Philippines and the Caribbean until 1898.

Rivas’ play is set around 1700, at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession, the beginning of Spain’s long agony of internal strife and foreign intervention that culminated in the Civil War of 1936-39. The fortunes of the Calatrava family are in decline. The first character we encounter in Rivas’ drama is the gypsy Preciosilla, who offers that the vanity of the Sevillian nobility is of one piece with their poverty. She also tells of dashing “Don Alvaro the Indian,” the best bullfighter in Spain, whose courtship of the aristocratic Leonora is the talk of Seville.

Don Alvaro is the son of Peruvian colonials who instigated a revolt against Spanish rule, and has Inca blood. His nemesis Don Carlo calls him a “mulatto” with “unworthy blood.” He loves Leonora de Vargas, a daughter of the Calatrava dynasty, but the family rejects him on racial grounds. A botched elopement leads to the accidental death of Leonara’s father, and her brother Carlo determines to kill the lovers. “Fate cannot separate us!” the lovers sing, and it doesn’t; the three are reunited through a series of coincidences improbable as only the Romantic stage of the 19th century could devise. These are less noisome than modern critics opine; after all, coincidence is everywhere the engine of Romantic drama (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”).

The lovers are separated; Leonora seeks refuge from her murderous brother and succor for her soul as a hermitess, while Alvaro, who believes her to be dead, joins the army. War has metastasized through the rotten fabric of the Spanish Empire. Verdi inserts a scene from Schiller’s great drama Wallenstein’s Camp, depicting the soldier-folk and their camp followers at the beginning of the Wallenstein trilogy. Wallenstein, the great imperial generalissimo of the Thirty Years War, is obsessed by fate and consults an astrologer. Schiller shows us that “fate” lies in the actions of ordinary people who are swept out of normal existence into a war that becomes a self-feeding monster. By quoting Schiller, Verdi tells his audience—who knew Wallenstein as well as we know Casablanca—that he embraces Schiller’s critique of fate.

Trelínsky cut half of the scene adopted from Schiller, and changed it from a roaring portrait of the soldateska into a USO entertainment for wounded soldiers. The Met’s program notes sniff, “There is also a Dickensian tendency to digress into slice-of-life vignettes that are only tangentially related to the main thrust of the drama and that even incorporate some buffo comedy.”

Nothing could be more clueless: As Verdi’s audience well understood, the raucous mercenaries and their traders and whores showed the disintegration of the social fabric. Real tragedy is found in the disrupted lives of ordinary people; that is what makes Rivas’ drama and Verdi’s opera so compelling, and what makes Trelínsky’s re-imagining so silly.

Alvaro ultimately takes vows at the same monastery where—unknown to him—Leonora is hidden, but Carlo tracks him down. Inflamed by Carlo’s racial insults, Alvaro kills his persecutor, but not before Carlo kills Leonora. In Rivas’ play (and the first version of Verdi’s opera), Alvaro declares, “Hell, open your mouth and swallow me! Let the sky fall. Let the human race perish. Extermination! Destruction!” Verdi then eliminated Alvaro’s suicide in a later version, and the opera now ends instead on a religious note. That is a weakness; Rivas’ nihilistic conclusion is more persuasive and more Spanish. The enlightened Duke of Rivas saw the gates of hell opening for his country, and Alvaro’s terrible declaration was a warning lest we succumb to fate rather than choose our destiny.

The director Trelínsky explains his alternate therapeutic version of Forza as follows: “Like most fathers in Verdi operas, he is domineering and even brutal in the way he exercises his authority. This permanently marks his children, who are unable to escape the roles he has given. Then, the trauma caused by his violent death is like a break in billiards. It propels all the characters along a fixed trajectory from which there is no release—not because it’s ordained by God but because it’s the way people are, because of our psychological makeup.”

If only Leonora could have found a good therapist to help her work through her daddy problem! Father Guardiano, who protects the fugitive Leonora at his monastery, appears at the opera’s conclusion in the general’s uniform of Leonora’s father, a generic military dictator surrounded by lackeys giving Hitler salutes—just in case the audience didn’t get the hint that the two “fathers” are connected. Alvaro, Spain’s best bullfighter in Rivas’ drama, first appears incongruously as a schlump in a sweatshirt, leaving Leonora’s love for him wholly unmotivated.

Updating operas with modern costumes and customs is a tricky proposition that always entails pitfalls. But the new Forza is an irredeemable disaster.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.