R.I.P. La Forza del destino–Part 1.

And now, per colmo di sventura (“Now this scene”), comes Melitone. Did he, too, pull up stakes, abandon his duties at the monastery, and become (I’m clinging to a thread of justification here) a sort of chaplain of the grenadiers and rabble? (I)Melitone says he’s come from Spain to help the wounded and the poor. For years, then to return to the monastery? It’s really a stretch, even for one who has no problem with Preziosilla and Trabuco. He belongs, literally, in another play, namely Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager, from which Piave and Verdi, with translating help from Count Maffei, pinched the battlefield sermon that became something of a comic showpiece, though what it usually shows is that it’s very hard to sing and play. And what, really, were all the good gentlemen thinking? Apparently, that they had a masterpiece of charming comedy on their hands. But, while it’s possible to concede that the scene is, from a technical standpoint, ingeniously written (Budden makes the case), it requires a seldom-encountered melding of irresistible theatrical personality with extraordinary vocal command to make it anything other than exasperating.

So this entire Act 3 sequence, from the duel scene onward (in the usual order) has the tone of a divertissement, with the single brief exception of the doleful chorus of peasants and recruits (“Pane, pan per carità“), whose tone is in turn out of keeping with the rest. Musically, the only honorable solution is to perform the stuffing out of each number and embrace the radical disjunctures as part and parcel of the opera. There remains the question of staging. Bearing in mind that these numbers occupy exactly the position of a ballet in the French grand-opera scheme, one possibility is to treat them as divertissement in the balletic sense. Something like that is undertaken in the Maryinsky production, with story-ballet pantomime standing in for acting and the whole company (the vivandieres in identical spiffy uniforms, like a rank of corps dancers) facing front for the “Rataplan” (or, in Tarasova’s pretty Russian-mezzo voicing, “Rataplohn“).

It’s a plan. But it doesn’t sit right. In the progression of this drama, there’s no call for divertissement, and the expedients adopted by camp followers do not strike us as occasion for merrymaking, grand-opera convention notwithstanding. This has to work for us. I’ve sometimes thought that, given Forza‘s epic nature, perhaps it’s best presented in Epic fashion (Mother Courage keeps poking her anachronistic head in), with solid, three-dimensional sets for only Act 2 and the final scene, and the rest shown in half-assembled, quickly shifted units, vivid but fragile fragments of a temporal, tragic world. Thinking of that anew, I called to mind the ruckus stirred up by Sam Wanamaker with his 1962 Forza production for Covent Garden. And looking back at that, I came across his rejoinder to criticism (“A Producer’s Defence,” Opera, Nov., 1962), which I must have read at the time, but had forgotten about—perhaps it’s been slumbering since.

Wanamaker was an American actor and director who, at the time of the McCarthy-era blacklistings, removed himself to the UK, where he based the rest of his fine career and was instrumental in the rebuilding of London’s Globe Theatre. He was a child of Old Leftie politics and mainstream American theatrethought (he trained at Chicago’s Goodman School, c. 1940), and his “Defence” is as good a representation of that p.o.v. vis-à-vis 19th-Century Romantic opera as one is apt to find. I’m sympathetic. My own background is similar, though not quite so extreme (and, after all, we’ve all moved along). Any modern (not postmodern) theatre director seeks an integrated production, whose elements agree with one another. Where the work itself seems to contain elements that don’t agree, he or she will look for a unifying theme, something that will make the piece cohere. For Wanamaker in the case of Forza, this theme  was that “. . . the tragic events in the story sprang from the attitudes and actions of the characters themselves, and not from some unknown mystical force of fate; that man makes his own fate.” (In writing on Forza many years ago, I inquired under what circumstances a man familiar with firearms would fling down a loaded pistol in a room containing his beloved, her father, and several servants. The opera’s a field day for Freudians if we start to ask these questions.) Wanamaker was out to expose the “false values” by which the characters live: the class and racial prejudice of the Marchese, the family-honor vengefulness of Carlo, the delusions of religious sanctimony (Guardiano and Melitone, he argues, “. . . representing the worst elements of the church”). His treatment of Preziosilla as a prostitute using sex and palm readings to rustle up recruits seems to have especially piqued some respondents, but according to Wanamaker it finds support in the historical record.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. Melitone says he’s come from Spain to help the wounded and the poor. For years, then to return to the monastery? It’s really a stretch, even for one who has no problem with Preziosilla and Trabuco.