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Verdi’s opera ‘Forza del Destino’ gets its first new production at the Met in nearly 30 years

NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) —

When the Metropolitan Opera last revived Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” a reviewer bemoaned its “four soul-numbing hours of ludicrous plot twists.”

That’s harsh. But there’s no question the libretto of this musically glorious, sprawling work does pose challenges unique among Verdi’s later operas.

For one thing, the action is spread over many years and jumps back and forth between two countries to locations that include a mansion, an inn, a monastery and a battlefield. All the while, the main characters keep running into each other in circumstances that defy credulity.

But Mariusz Treliński thinks he has found a way to make sense of it all.

“If you analyze it, you discover the element that ties the whole story together,” said the Polish filmmaker-turned-opera director who is overseeing the Met’s first new production of “Forza” in 28 years.

That unifying element, Treliński said, is “patriarchy, and the fact that when you kill the father it destroys not just the children but the entire social order.”

His “Forza” opens on Feb. 26 with a cast that includes soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonora, tenor Brian Jagde as Don Alvaro, baritone Igor Golovatenko as Don Carlo, and bass-baritone Soloman Howard as both the Marquis de Calatrava and Padre Guardiano. Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts. The March 9 matinee will be broadcast to movie theaters live in HD.

Like many directors these days, Treliński doesn’t hesitate to update an opera if he thinks it tells the story better for modern audiences.

So instead of 18th century Spain and Italy, the setting is now contemporary. Verdi’s Marquis, father to the heroine Leonora and her brother Carlo, becomes General Calatrava, “the boss of all the military forces and kind of a dictator, someone who feels the world belongs to him.”

In a pantomime acted out during the overture, we see their dysfunctional family dynamic from childhood on, including Leonora’s ambivalence toward her father. “She wants to escape because he’s so domineering,” the director said. “But from another side, she loves her father and it’s not so easy.”

He’s not the first director to use the overture to create a backstory for the family. In Christof Loy’s recent production for London’s Royal Opera, he invents a younger brother for Leonora and Carlo who dies in childhood. Carlo’s implacable bitterness toward his sister stems in part from his blaming her for their brother’s death.

In both versions, Leonora plans to elope with her sweetheart, Alvaro, whom her father despises because he is part Incan. When the father confronts the lovers, Alvaro throws down his gun to surrender, but it discharges and kills the old man, who curses Leonora with his dying breath.

On one level it’s merely a tragic accident, but Treliński takes a more nuanced view.

“Verdi is very clever here,” he said. “He’s doing something which has two meanings. On one hand, it’s something unconscious — they don’t want to kill the father. But if Leonora was not planning to escape, Alvaro would not have a gun and it would not go off.”

That gunshot in the opening scene sets off everything that follows, both the personal tragedies of the main characters and — in Treliński’s telling — the complete breakdown of society through war.

By the opera’s end, the director imagines a “post-apocalyptic world” where “people are hungry. There is no food … they live like rats in the subway.”

As for the principal characters, once the father is dead, they are “thrown into chaos … unconsciously looking for the next surrogate father who can replace him.”

Leonora seeks refuge in a monastery, where the abbot, Padre Guardiano, offers her shelter. “When she knocks on the door,” Treliński said, “she sees in him the face of her father.” He underscores that point by having the same singer portray both Calatrava and the monk.

Alvaro, who sought in vain to be accepted by Leonora’s father, “goes to the army, because in the structure of the army he finds another surrogate father,” the director said. Carlo, obsessed with hunting down and killing the lovers, also enlists.

Treliński thinks the idea that a single, cataclysmic event can trigger shock waves throughout society will resonate for today’s audiences, who have lived through the worldwide pandemic and ongoing wars. The production was first seen last year in Warsaw, where Polish audiences, especially, have been shaken by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war raging so close to home.

“We thought we were immortal, everything is perfect, and suddenly in two seconds everything is in ruins,” he said.

Beyond the libretto, there are musical challenges to making the piece cohere.

Nézet-Séguin notes that the writing “seems to come from an extremely varied collection of styles,” with religious, choral and comedic episodes interspersed among the arias and duets for the main characters.

“But all of it is so well done, and as ever with Verdi, the timing of all these different scenes is so perfect, that it is really well unified,.” he said.

And Nézet-Séguin thinks Treliński′s updated production “stays very true to the essence of the story and is helping make sense musically of all the varied elements.”

Ultimately, however, no director can hide all the improbabilities in the libretto.

“It’s not about making sense of everything,” Nézet-Séguin said, “but more about going to the opera and having a lot of things to think about when we go back home.

“And I think that is one of the things we can offer when people come to the Met.”

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