The Flaws & Glory of 'La Forza del Destino'

One has to make allowances for Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," which airs at 8 tonight on PBS. This is a first-class performance of one of Verdi's most memorable compositions, but it falls a bit short of flawlessness.

The plot, for example. "La Forza del Destino" is full of gas -- appropriately for a show that is underwritten, like all Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, by Texaco. It is melodrama in its most undiluted form -- characters who are caricatures, spending all their time in extreme emotional states and blundering through a plot crammed with wild improbabilities, coincidences and absurdities.

Ultimately, its only saving grace is that this theatrical nonsense inspired the composer to produce some of his most glorious music. The libretto is even worse than "Ernani," shown last season, and the music is even better.

"In fact," says host Alexander Scourby, "the plot is quite simple. Don Alvaro, a nobleman of Peru, while eloping with his beloved Leonora de Vargas, accidentally kills the girl's father. The remorseful lovers flee and, separated, take religious vows. But Leonora's brother, Don Carlo, relentlessly tracks them down, seeking revenge. The force of Destiny cannot be denied."

That's a fair summary, except that it leaves unmentioned more than half of the opera's singing roles, including three of major importance. It also omits some of the plot's chief ingredients -- a war between Spain and Germany, for example, several duels, a couple of deaths and assorted mob scenes. It glosses over such absurdities as Leontyne Price in trousers pretending to be a monk, or the fact that she and her lover Don Alvaro (tenor Giuseppe Giacomini) live for years in the same monastery without either knowing that the other is there. Or the fact that Alvaro, under an assumed name, becomes a close friend of Carlo (baritone Leo Nucci), who has sworn to kill him. Above all, it fails to mention the Romantic cliche's about the Spanish character and its dark, destructive sense of honor. The libretto might aptly be renamed "The Force of Density."

Fortunately for opera lovers, Verdi was at his best in responding to absurd situations and extreme emotions.

"Forza" supplies these in abundance, as well as noble sentiments, which are also a Verdi forte. His strongest writing in this opera lies in the solo vocal lines -- such numbers as Leonora's "Pace, pace" and "Madre, pietosa Vergine," Alvaro's "O tu che in sen agli angeli" and Carlo's "Urna fatale," not to mention the noble music of Padre Guardiano (bass Bonaldo Giaiotti) and the vigorous comic material of Preziosilla (mezzo Isola Jones).

The best solo singing is heard from the two women in the cast and Leo Nucci, who is also the most impressive actor on the stage. Leontyne Price has to work harder today at what was once easy -- but she is willing to do the work and her performance is memorable if not quite flawless. Jones is brilliant. Giacomini is acceptable vocally and theatrically if not much more, and Giaiotti has the right kind of slightly stiff dignity for his role. Enrico Fissore, a newcomer to the Met, has not fully integrated and polished the role of Melitone, but seems well on his way. The stage direction is as hopeless as the plot. James Levine conducts splendidly, as usual.

Tonight's performance will be shown with stereo simulcasts on WETA-FM and WBJC-FM.