One hundred fifty years ago today, Giuseppe Verdi first mounted his opera La Forza del Destino ("The Force of Destiny") on a stage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Today, La Forza is considered one of Verdi's masterpieces, but it wasn't always that way. The story of Don Alvaro, whose love for the aristocratic Leonora incurs the wrath of her family, is violent and chaotic, and it flopped on its first run.
"People found it crazy. People found it emotionally incontinent," says William Berger, radio commentator for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and author of the book Verdi With a Vengeance. "Part of it has to do with the extremes of the emotion and the abruptness with which they change from comedy to tragedy, to absurdity, to religiosity, to drinking songs, to hate."
Verdi considered his opera a failure, but he decided to give it another try. He retooled the ending so that the two lovers, whose gruesome deaths bring the original story to its close, are reunited in heaven. That and a few other alterations changed the tone of the entire work, and when it was performed before a much tougher crowd back home in Italy seven years later, La Forza finally became a success.
Since then, it has become a standard at top opera houses around the world. But it has also taken on a new stigma: the belief, among some old-school opera singers, that Verdi's opus is cursed.
The stories are many, each one more foreboding than the last. La Forza's first performance was delayed nine months when its soprano came down with a grave illness. Theaters have inexplicably lost power during performances. Most dramatically, baritone Leonard Warren literally died on stage when he performed in the Met's 1960 production of the opera. He had just launched into an aria that begins, "Morir, tremenda cosa" ("To die, a terrible thing"). Before the song's end, Warren collapsed in full view of the entire audience, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Berger says he doesn't believe in the curse, but he does believe such a thing is possible — especially when the work is as disturbing as La Forza often is.
"There are many examples of this in music — the idea of the Diabolus in musica in the Middle Ages — the idea that if you played this combination of notes, you summon up the devil," he says. "People are singing along and spinning the notes and all of a sudden, they have some experience of, 'Turn around! Don't go there! This is out of your league; you don't know what you're messing with!' That is real. That happens."
Click the audio link on this page to hear the full version of this story, including a synopsis of La Forza's extravagant plot and selections of its music.