Opera Theatres of War: La Forza del Destino at the Met

A group of people sitting on stairs Description automatically generated

(Met Opera photo)

With the United States fighting two bloody proxy wars, it made bizarre geo-political sense to head to the Metropolitan Opera House last Friday evening for the final performance this season of the company’s new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.

Opera and war go together like Pavarotti and high Cs.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607, that earliest operatic masterpiece still a staple of the repertory, begins with a brass fusillade, a martial call to arms, even if no armies are involved in the story. Instead, love and loss drive a struggle with death that ensues after that opening cavalry charge in sound. The musically gifted, if gormless, hero, Orfeo, ultimately loses the fight and gets spread across the heavens as a constellation at the princely entertainment’s conclusion—a fitting, though silent, monument to his valor.

Handel conquered London in 1711 with a crusader opera (Rinaldo), swords clashing with magic, the smart weaponry of the Early Modern.

The rest of the eighteenth century staged innumerable tales of military prowess and power politics, none more favored than Alexander the Great’s exploits. When war-loving European monarchs had the cash to shift from their military budgets to culture they sometimes ordered live elephants to join their theatrical representations of parades and battles.

In the next century, at the 1871 premiere in Cairo of Verdi’s Aida, a dozen of the giant beasts added pomp and firepower to the Egyptian forces gearing up to lock tusks with the enemy Ethiopians: “War, war, war!” sing the massed choral forces, their fighting spirit stoked by opening trumpet blasts.

A decade earlier Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave had set their La Forza del Destino in eighteenth-century Spain and Italy. “Drums rattle,” runs a rousing second-act chorus that proclaims the desire for Italian freedom. The historic war not only provides an ominous backdrop for the baroque plot of thwarted love and vengeance, but also resounds with the then current aspirations for Italian unification and independence.

The opera premiered in St. Petersburg in November of 1862 and the Russians loved it. Verdi strategically deployed his full of arsenal of restive orchestral effects and ravishing melodies whose immediate fulfilment of desire renders the opera’s final catastrophe all the more enjoyably devastating.

This first version of the piece killed off all three main characters in the love-and-revenge triangle, the body count capped when Don Alvaro, on the run since early in the opera after his pistol accidentally felled the father of his beloved, hurls himself into a conveniently located chasm after fighting a duel with his pursuer, Don Carlo, the son of the dead father just mentioned and also brother of Alvaro’s beloved, Leonora. In addition to the challenging theatrical topography, that dramatically elongated duel had counterintuitively traversed the intermission between the third and fourth acts. Far from questioning the unlikely imperatives of the plot, the Russians approved of the initial bloody impetus that set the forces of destiny in motion, since it followed the Chekhovian principle (not yet formulated) that if a loaded gun is seen on stage it must go off, even if accidentally.

After ST. Petersburg, Verdi’s opera made its way around the world in the next few years, from New York to Vienna, Buenos Aries, and London. These “Western” audiences didn’t share the unbridled bloodlust of their Russian counterparts. By the time the show got to Milan’s La Scala in 1869, the finale had been modified to have Alvaro decide (de-spoiler alert) against suicide, opting instead for redemption. He gives himself to God, who has at last stayed the force of destiny.

An icy Friday night wind blew down Broadway as we made our way through Times Square past the U. S. Armed Forces recruiting center with its open-air movies of soldiers in action, defending freedom and the global brands shimmering their seductions down from the screens encircling the plaza.

Up at Lincoln Center, the last night of La Forza del Destino coincided with Under Forty Friday, an initiative meant to lure younger audiences with much cheaper tickets. These youthful folks came in elegant droves of every persuasion and province, dressed exuberantly in ball gowns and chunky shoes, velour tuxes, sequined spectacles, showing off their big hair, waxed moustaches, and beards even bigger and more artfully beard-smithed than Verdi’s. The intermission photo shoots on the red carpet of the grand staircase might have made the operatic fashionistas of Milan emerald with envy.

The marquee soprano for the Met’s new production, Lise Davidsen, hails from Norway, a country that also gave us that rather dour star of the international stage, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. Davidsen has reaped rapturous reviews for her portrayal of the doomed Leonora.

But our night at the Met was not hers. Scheduling international operatic stars from the Met’s roster shares some of the logistical demands of invading a smallish country. We were treated to the reserve heroine. Perhaps the management was skimping on Under Forty Friday, but I heard no complaints from young or old for the ravishing replacement.

Opera is a pursuit for both the nationalist and the cosmopolitan: one plays the role that suits the dramatic moment. Instead of a singer from ally Norway the role of Leonora was taken by Russian soprano Elena Stikhina. Shortly after Russia invaded the Ukraine, the Met sacked a far more famous Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko for refusing to denounce Putin. Netrebko, celebrated not least for her Leonora at the Met, turned around and sued the company for discrimination, defamation, and breach of contract.

Perhaps Stikhina had signed some statement or simply assured the relevant parties of her moral principles, but the CV printed in the Met program booklet looked suspect, reporting that she remains a member of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Its director is none other than Putin’s pal, conductor Valery Gergiev, who also parted company with the Met directly after the invasion. Stikhina has also performed under Gergiev’s baton since the outbreak of the war in the Ukraine. Met General Director Peter Gelb seems to have run out of blue-and-yellow litmus tests.

Stage director Mariusz Trelinski, who hails from a Poland in the shadow of Putin’s menace, had transposed the action of the opera from 1750 to just about now. He made the heroine’s father into more of a Noriega-type with Aviator glasses and blinged-out general’s uniform than a Italian-suited potentate of the present. In between scenes, enveloping video projections showed attack helicopters menacing from above, as if they’d just flown in from Times Square; bombs unleashed billowing flames rendered on stage as aesthetic marvels of doom; soldiers in full gear, trundled desperately through snowy theatres of war, rifles at the ready, boots on frozen ground. The last act took place in a bombed-out subway station, the beleaguered, freezing population finding scant refuge in the remnants of their battered city. Trelinski had returned La Forza to a locale adjacent to its premiere: the unavoidable association was with the Ukraine.

Down in the Met basement there is a Ukrainian flag and photographs of Ukrainian musicians who have sung and played with the company. But on Friday, Russians sang and shone. With war depicted on stage and raging across the seas, it was just another night at the opera: voices spanned their magnificent tessituras, the heroine was gored (off-stage, as per Met tradition), and the orchestra played like the proverbial army of generals, commanded by consummate conductor and unapologetic enthusiast, Canadian-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director. Regardless of the singer’s nationality, he laid down his baton and applauded vigorously from the podium after each show-stopping set-piece. Right from the start of the now ominous, now lyrical overture Nézet-Séguin held orchestra, singers, and audience in his thrall.

Some knowing Democrats might have salved their consciousness by concentrating on the fact that bad-guy Don Carlo was sung by baritone Igor Golovatenko from Moscow. Liberal geo-political awareness might also have been distracted by the Russians’ world-class singing: Stikhina radiant, strong, and subtle, and technically sure even when her Leonora is at her most troubled; Golovatenko impetuous, dark, unyielding. The pair was divided and ultimately reunited in death by an American Alvaro, tenor Brian Jagde. He’s a Long Island boy, with a clear, compelling tenor voice that powerfully projects yearning and sympathy but with a thrilling touch of madness. In the end only he found peace.

Imagine a New Yorker and a Muscovite singing together on the same stage in time of war, even if their duet is ultimately not of friendship but of hate. It was the Russian as the vengeful Don Carlo who sang, over the pleas for brotherhood from the American Alvaro, “Fool, between us there gapes a bloodied tomb” as the final duel is joined.

After the three-hour war (four with intermissions) on the final Friday of March at the Met, the house was thankfully brought down only figuratively.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com