Don Alvaro: Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘man of conscience’

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The following observations are on the video of La Forza del destino, KULTUR Copyright Reiner Moritz Associates Limited, 1998

When Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi’s librettist for La forza del destino traveled to St. Petersburg in 1862 with the composer, he kept a production book in which he commented on many aspects of the new production and included a list of the protagonists’ characteristics. Piave described the tortured hero, Don Alvaro, as being “an Indian of royal stock, of the most passionate spirit, indomitable and always generous.” These are only a few of the personality traits Verdi took to heart as he composed his grand opera inspired by Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino, the Spanish drama by the Duke of Rivas. Attracted by the sprawl ing and at times unfocused play, Verdi realized the Duke of Rivas had presented him with characters that could grow emotionally in stature in a large multi-layered opera.

In fact, both Verdi and the Duke of Rivas depict their unlucky hero in much the same way. Alvaro is a proud leader of the Peruvian people, intensely loyal to his people, wounded by European prejudice, steadfast and deeply in love with Leonora di Calatrava, Verdi’s heroine. In the opera, Don Alvaro is often distraught due to a strong undercurrent of fate, which he can never seem to shake off. Within the huge range of emotions displayed in Verdi’s oeuvre, there was room for an uncanny sense of despair. Verdi need not have experienced this first hand to know the extent to which it could take over a person’s life. With his innate ability to create exciting theater, the composer seized upon this sense of despair and incorporated it into the tragic figure of Don Alvaro. Call it destiny, call it fate, it was despair that was the downfall of Don Alvaro.

In the late 1990s, the Mariinsky Theater, under the artistic direction of Valery Gergiev, decided not only to mount Verdi’s original 1862 ver sion of Forza, but also to make a video of it. The Kirov, as it had done in the past, recognized its own penchant for strong characterization and, knowing of Verdi’s rich emotional delineation of Don Alvaro, found in Gegam Grigorian the perfect tenor to fulfill Alvaro’s tragic destiny.

Starting with the opera’s first scene set in the Calatrava palace, we discover how Don Alvaro’s fragile emotional stability starts to unravel as Grigorian, almost immediately, captures the depth of Alvaro’s un happiness.

Don Alvaro arrives at the palace in high spirits over his pending elopement with Leonora, but soon senses her reluctance to flee with him, for the lady is torn between her father’s disapproval of Don Alvaro as an unworthy spouse and her passionate love for him. Don Alvaro’s feelings of joy turn to doubt as he senses Leonora’s reluctance. And here begins his long descent into an emotional abyss as he questions her love for him and suspects that his life is doomed. In just the few phras es that he is allotted by the composer and his librettist, the tenor is able to convey enough emotional turmoil as to impel the character forward from this scene onward and stretch it to cover the whole opera. As mu sic critic Jay Nordlinger said on the occasion of Grigorian’s Metropoli tan Opera performance in War and Peace last year, “Grigorian does not specialize in beauty of sound, but he has many virtues including stami na and intensity. He is a workhorse of a tenor, rugged, sturdy, built to last.” And in this Forza video, stamina and intensity are only two com ponents that contribute to the emotions that propel Grigorian into giving a complete picture of what Verdi desired so much for his unlucky hero.

We next meet Don Alvaro in an army encampment in one of the most lyrical and poignant scenes Verdi ever composed for a tenor. It is nighttime and Don Alvaro is in a reflective mood. Here stage director Elijah Moshinsky gives Grigorian a small but effective piece of stage business. The tenor walks slowly around the camp, all the while taking small sips from a soldier’s flask, an indication of his need to escape, and finally settles in a chair and tells in a substantial recitative how his par ents “dreamed of a kingdom,” and “died on a scaffold.” As he moves into a tender aria of resignation, he asks God to have mercy on his mis erable life and finally beckons Leonora’s spirit to pray for him. This scene rounds out Don Alvaro’s role as a solitary figure roaming a for saken battlefield where broken hearts lie and broken spirits never get up. The next scenes show him confronted by Leonora’s brother, Don Carlos de Vargas, bent on avenging their father’s death which Don Al varo had caused accidentally at the beginning of the opera. A short, up lifting duet for the two protagonists, who at this point still do not recog nize each other, is followed by two rousing and heroic ones for the two adversaries. It is in these two duets that we find the strongest conflict of the entire opera. Verdi composed an aria and a finale to Act Three, but removed it after the St. Petersburg premiere because it proved to be fraught with musical difficulties and required such emotional outpour ing that tenors found it too arduous to sing. But the Kirov’s desire to present the version in its complete form restored the scene, and it proved a dramatic highlight for Grigorian. To heighten the drama, the director has Grigorian sing the aria while kneeling beside Don Carlos’s supposedly dead body, allowing the tenor to bring out every vivid ele ment he can muster in his vocal arsenal. In this scene Don Alvaro ex presses the motive for his emotional torment: from the moment that he realizes his destiny is tied to the deaths of Leonora’s father and now her brother, he retreats into a nether world, a world where the Angel of Death will pursue his every step, and in a deep anguish he compares himself to Cain, one who has been stained forever by sin. As the music pushes forward through the recitative, Verdi does give Don Alvaro a moment’s respite, raising his spirits just a little with a gentle, lyrical prayer to the Almighty. As Don Alvaro begs for forgiveness for his transgressions, Verdi fills the finale with great personal irony as only an agnostic and a musical genius is capable of doing — as if he who lives outside God’s world nonetheless knows instinctively just the right way to approach His world.

But Don Alvaro quickly returns to the reality facing him. He hears from his fellow soldiers that their enemy, the Germans, are advancing, and he must rush off to battle and fly into death’s arms. In almost fre netically delirious music that stretches Grigorian’s notes to an almost unbearable limit, the tenor, remarkably, never loses the vocal line as he asks God for mercy and promises that, if he lives, he will spend his re maining days in a cloister.

In the ensuing confrontation between Don Carlos and Don Alvaro, now living in a monastery as Padre Raffaele, Don Alvaro listens as his pursuer tells him that he has come to the end of his journey, for God has “saved” him for this final act of revenge. Here, the music reserved for Don Alvaro is poignant and at times almost celestial as he implores Don Carlos to forget about revenge and let him live in peace. Don Carlos, perceiving this as an act of cowardice stemming from the tainted Indian blood that flows through Don Alvaro’s veins, through pulsating and menacing music, challenges him to a duel. The musical passages Verdi set down for this duet are exact in their timing, flooded with expression, and raise the level of conflict with such intensity – rage and hopeless ness running concurrently into that inescapable well of destiny – that the full effect of their passion is quickly transferred to the audience.

There is no doubt that swiftness becomes Verdi’s modus vivendi in the last act of this 1862 version. In the finale, the composer “opted for striking dramatic effect rather than musical beauty.” However, before Verdi’s tragedy gallops on to its predestined end ing, the composer stops to create one of the most beautiful arias in all of 19th-century Italian opera, “Pace pace, mio Dio,” Leonora’s plea to Heaven for some earthly peace. In this aria, soprano Galina Gorchakova’s interpretation of Verdi’s ill-fated heroine now living as a hermit at the Monastery of Our Lady of Angels meets the com poser’s musical requirements head on, allowing her not only to focus in on all the musical and emotional elements at her disposal but to accurately portray Leonora as she appeals to God to liberate her from an overwhelming sorrow.

After Leonora’s restless invocation, events happen quickly. In that last scene of the opera, Don Alvaro runs his sword into Don Carlos and the dying Don Carlos, in turn, thrusts his sword into Leonora. Upon hearing Leonora’s alarm bell, the monks rush to the scene, gasping in horror at finding the two dead bodies, and anxiously look around for Don Alvaro. Catching sight of him upon a rocky parapet, they listen as he damns the whole human race for his fate and hurls himself to his death. It is within the intense white heat of this last scene that the Russians and Verdi unite to confirm Don Alvaro’s fearless descent into ut ter despair. And it is Grigorian who delivers their message. For throughout the opera it is the tenor’s complete portrayal of a thoughtful and steady Don Alvaro that gives the audience the opportunity to em pathize with the character and understand why he acts as he does. Even when reunited with Leonora, Grigorian’s Don Alvaro holds his conflicts in check in a short, melodic duet that only has time to be expressed as a speedy cabaletta until fate finally deals him the cruelest blow – to have found Leonora only to have her die – expressed in those blasphemous fi nal words declaiming that he was a demon sent by hell where he must now return.

What does it say about Verdi at this time in his life? In 1862 Verdi was still young enough to be impetuous, brave enough to follow to its conclusion a story with a tragic ending that offers no comfort and is a harbinger of emotional extremes, wise enough to compose a tenor role infused with great moral complexity, and daring enough to reveal his own fearless view of the world for all to know.

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