Met Resurrects ‘Forza’ In Stark New Look, And A New Force Is With It

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Brian Jagde is Don Alvaro and Lise Davidsen portrays Leonora in the new Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s ‘La forza del destino.’ (Photos by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — La forza del destino, Verdi’s most tragic opera and arguably his most ambitious, was once a staple at the Metropolitan Opera, with 220 performances in the 20th century (more than Don Carlo), featuring sopranos including Rosa Ponselle, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, and Leona Mitchell in the all-important role of Leonora. But it has fallen from favor, appearing only 10 times in the past 25 years. So, especially for hard-core Verdi fans, the Met premiere of a new Mariusz Treliński production of La Forza on Feb. 26 was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the season, not least because it featured soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonora, tenor Brian Jagde as Don Alvaro, and what appeared to be a dream cast across the other demanding roles, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

Why the neglect? Like Don Carlo or Berlioz’s Les Troyens, this is not an easy opera to cast. At least five of the roles demand rare, major voices. But the larger problem lies with the unwieldly libretto: a sprawling and convoluted epic concoction filled with coincidences that border on the absurd, long stretches in the middle that fail to maintain the dramatic tension, and jarring transitions.

Treliński’s production, shared with Poland’s Teatr Wielki, where it debuted in 2023, updates the action to the present and locates it in an unnamed country ruled by a vain and venal autocratic general, Calatrava, who demands slavish devotion from his subjects. They respond with Nazi salutes as he makes speeches glorifying war and extreme nationalism.

Stephanie Lauricella as Curra, Lise Davidsen as Leonora, and Soloman Howard as the Marquis of Calatrava in a scene from Verdi’s ‘La Forza del Destino’

In Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, the opera is set in Spain. Leonora, the daughter of the Marchese di Calatrava, is about to elope with Don Alvaro, a Peruvian nobleman, after having been forbidden to see him by her father who, with racist implications that echo today, believes Alvaro is beneath them and has “sullied” his daughter. When Calatrava accosts them, Alvaro accidently kills him. Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo, vows to avenge his father by killing both Alvaro and his sister.

During the overture at the Met, Leonora, in an elegant gown, wanders despondently in front of the Calatrava Hotel, where her father is holding forth at what is supposed to be her birthday party. The audience is likely to note that he owns hotels and enjoys branding his properties with his name. She enters but quickly slips away to meet Alvaro, who in this production is a poor but earnest young man, seemingly apolitical. Act Two features something resembling a USO show, with Preziosilla, a quirky gypsy in the original version, entertaining the troops by mixing fortune-telling with nationalistic warmongering. At one point, the curtain opens to reveal an overturned car and a distraught Leonora, now a wanted woman with few options. She finds refuge in a stark, strangely militaristic monastery, where she is recognized by the Father Superior, Guardino, whose resemblance to her father stuns her. He admits her to the hermitage, and we witness her initiation, complete with a haircut and the image of the Virgin Mary, which arrives via projection.

Lise Davidsen, as Leonora, received prolonged ovations.

The third act is the most difficult to pull off, with a duet-heavy score that becomes monotonous and a labyrinthine plot. Golden Age productions simply cut most of it, rendering the story even more disjointed (this production includes several significant cuts, which do no great harm and reduce the running time to a little over four hours). Treliński’s most significant changes to this act are to update the weaponry and uniforms, and to precede it with a video of noisy, foreboding helicopters.

In Treliński’s version of Act Four, a video introduces us to an apocalyptic, bombed-out postwar city rife with poverty and starvation. Refugees crowd into the remains of a subway station as Father Guardino distributes scraps of food, assisted by Father Alvaro.

With his audacious 2016 Met production of Tristan und Isolde, Treliński’s intense use of metaphor was a controversial approach to an opera that often succeeds with minimal staging. His Forza, by adding a compelling contemporary spine, makes the drama more accessible, and is, for the most part, intelligently integrated with the text. A constantly revolving giant turntable reveals grim sets (designed by Boris Kudlička), often monochromatic and starkly lit (Marc Heinz), and grim military costumes (Moritz Junge) for most of the cast. Bartek Macias designed the gripping videos.

Lise Davidsen as Leonora and Igor Golovatenko as Don Carlo

This was destined to be Davidsen’s night, and, as has often been the case, she exceeded expectations. Having set the opera world on fire with her triumphs in Wagner and Strauss, the Norwegian soprano has now turned to Verdi. Her Elisabeth in Covent Garden’s Don Carlo in the summer of 2023 elicited rhapsodic reviews. Still, there have been concerns that her voice, with its transcendent power and range, might not be suitable for Verdi’s roles, which demand more subtlety and suppleness.

The answer to those concerns was this magical performance. Davidsen’s transformations, from a spoiled, petulant girl in the opening scene, to a desperately frightened woman in peril, then to a contrite penitent are all convincing vocally. But it was her performance at the end of the opera, when she arrived like a bag lady hunched over a shopping cart and sang Verdi’s miraculous “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” that stunned the audience. She captured every nuance, floated a high B-flat, and broke hearts. The ovation that followed was one of the longest I can recall for an aria at the Met. Overcome, she broke character for a moment and nodded her head, as Nézet-Séguin joined the ovation.

Jagde, who began as a baritone, has developed into a formidable tenor, with ample power, dramatic intensity, and excellent high notes. He began decently but soon warmed up for a superb performance, including a knockout “O tu che seno agli angeli” in Act Three. Youthful looking at 39, he exudes a kind of Boy Scout demeanor perfect for this role.

Leonora (Lise Davidsen) being initiated at the hermitage

Baritone Igor Golovatenko, as Carlo, was less successful, with some weakness in the lower register and a sound that wasn’t quite Italianate. Mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi might have been miscast as Preziosilla. She’s a reliable Kundry, but here her performance lacked punch, and Nézet-Séguin seemed to slow the pace in an effort to help her.

Bass Soloman Howard was double-cast as General Calatrava, Leonora’s father, and Padre Guardiano, a clever way of emphasizing the latter’s fatherly role, which carried over from the original text. Howard has a sturdy voice and was especially strong in the Guardiano role. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi displayed powerful singing and excellent comic instincts as Friar Melitone.

Nézet-Séguin got off to a sluggish start with a brass-heavy overture, but soon settled into a deft, nuanced performance, with just the right propulsive energy and balance, despite a few lapses in coordination.

Most of the audience seemed deliriously happy, and the ovations were long and strong. But not everyone agreed: A man in my row was muttering “Oh, God” even before the staged overture ended, and I heard some grousing at the intermissions. There was a time when the Old Guard purists ruled this house. Some have died off, like the characters in Forza, and others have become more muted, so that opening night boos are now pretty rare.

La forza del destino continues at the Met through March 29, with an HD telecast scheduled for March 9. For tickets, go here.