Forza is nearly always categorized as a “problem” opera, not only by critics and connoisseurs, but by those responsible for its production, who, having taken “problem opera” as their premise, logically arrive at problematic outcomes. It’s not neat, that’s for sure. So before I get to a close look in Part 2 at some of the performers of the ’50s who kept Forza castable not only at the Met and La Scala, but at the San Carlo in Naples, the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the New Orleans Opera, and other venues, and before some thoughts about how “everything went wrong” by 1976 and wronger since, some attention to the piece and its difficulties seems in order. The difficulties originated in the creative process, and the tale of Piave and Verdi trying to hew a manageable opera from the Duke of Rivas’ play, of the form it took for its St. Petersburg premiere, and of the significant subsequent revisions to bring it to the one we know today, is accessible enough in the Verdi literature to render repetition here unnecessary. That final form is not so long as the five-act Don Carlo(s), or as several Wagner operas or some by Handel, but it’s long enough, and contains a quantity of material that can be seen as sufficiently beside the point (material, that is, that does not appear to contribute more than incidental color to the plot’s through-line) as to invite redaction, especially in what is still essentially a “numbers” opera. In Act 3, this material, foreshadowed in the Inn Scene of Act 1, attains critical mass and puts the central story on pause for what, in many performances, can seem an impermissible duration.
Some of the more frequently heard objections to Forza‘s structure seem to me simply obtuse. It’s been complained, for example, that after the opening scene, we lose track first of Alvaro (through the Inn Scene and all of Act 2, the Convent Scene) and then of Leonora (through all three scenes of Act 3 and the first of Act 4), and then (depending on the scene sequence chosen) of both, and further that the two are given no real love duet to give us that traditional operatic consummation. Those are not weaknesses, but strengths, and parts of the work’s essence. It’s the very cutting short of a meant-for-each-other alliance, then the longing of separation under the cloud of tragic guilt and the threat of murderous pursuit—the man into the military and the woman into penitential isolation—that are the source of the opera’s suspense and yearning. (We are meant to pick up on the backstory compressed into the opening scene and the recitative before the Act 3 tenor aria, the main feature of which is that Leonora, daughter of an aristocratic Spanish house of the mid-1700s, has fallen in love with a man of noble descent but very much on the wrong side of the color bloodline on his mother’s side, that of the Peruvian Incas.) A second objection is the prevalence of melodramatic coincidence. Yes, but Forza is a melodrama, so titled, and if we allow for timeline and motive (think of all the occasions on which these paths have not crossed), the coincidences don’t seem so coincidental. Yet there does remain that longish sequence in Act 3, Scene 3 and Act 4, Scene 1, wherein the common folk, also vanished from sight for an extended period (since that Act 1 Inn Scene) take the stage, the musical language turns folkish with them and at times seems out of whack with the implications of the libretto, and it’s not easy to know what attitude to take. This where the “problem opera” appellation has some bite, best summed up for me by a fellow standee, one of the Family Circle regulars in the ’50s, as we manned our posts for the start of Act 4—Melitone, Guardiano, and the beggars. “Now this scene,” he moaned.