Among the twenty-five most popular operas of the past two centuries, more of them take place in España than any other location, and Giuseppe Verdi wrote no less than four of these: Don Carlo (1860), Ernani (1844), La Forza del Destino (1835), and Il Trovatore (1853). In fact, Verdi set more of his operas in Spain than did any other major composer. What was it about Spain that fascinated Verdi and other opera composers from Mozart to Bizet?
The reasons have to do with certain universal themes pervasive in Spain’s rich history: its constant struggle for power and clash between Church and State, its lively dance rhythms and colorful characters, and its torrid climate (and equally hot-tempered women).
All of these elements proved irresistible to Verdi, who masterfully exploited them in his Spanish-based operas. A lifelong monarchist and believer in myths of grandeur, he was constantly on the lookout for strong, unusual scenes and complex characters with a passion for vengeance. Family and political dramas at the Spanish Court fulfilled these requirements perfectly, especially with such riveting characters as King Phillip II, who also was a compelling presence in such media favorites as the film Elizabeth the Golden Age and the hit TV series The Tudors.
Hunger for power was ubiquitous in Verdi’s Spanish operas, and Phillip was obsessed with it. He had limitless ambition with regard to expanding his empire, and no qualms about stomping helpless countries such as Flanders under his boot. Librettists du Locle and Méry tried to humanize Phillip by showing him helpless at the feet of the Catholic Church, represented by the Grand Inquisitor, and since Verdi had issues with the Church’s censorship he gave Phillip some of the most sympathetic music in the opera. Verdi also had tremendous empathy with Carlo’s struggle to liberate Flanders from Spanish domination, since it paralleled the struggle for Italian unity in which Verdi was actively involved. The librettists manipulated history, exaggerating the drama of Schiller’s tragedy Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, and Carlo’s obsession with the Queen Mother, in order to bring these rich characters to life. The real Carlo was inordinately small, lame, and psychologically unstable (his grandmother was Joanna the Mad). He even had brain surgery (if such a thing could be imagined in 1565) to alleviate his mental instability. It didn’t help. But the whole package added up to the perfect backdrop for some of Verdi’s most glorious music.
Victor Hugo was, along with Schiller and Shakespeare, one of Verdi’s three favorite writers. Verdi again makes use of Spain’s most fascinating historical periods to provide the rich setting for his less popular but dramatically compelling Ernani, based on Hugo’s Hernani. Set in 1519 in Saragossa, capital of the former kingdom of Aragon (an important crossroads of the Basque region and scene of multiple martyrdoms of the Spanish Inquisition), Hugo’s play is filled with the action and historic interest Verdi loved to depict.
This opera portrays Carlo V, the ancestor of the Infante Don Carlo, as a powerful, ruthless monarch who will stop at nothing to win – by force if necessary – both an empire and the woman he desires. But as with Don Carlo this opera shows some compassion for a powerful ruler, who carries a heart within his royal breast and tries to save his rival’s life. Aside from Carlo V, fascinating characters abound: Bandits (including one noble one), mountain people, knights, Spanish nobles and members of the Holy Alliance spar with each other against a darkly menacing background. One scene even takes place at Charlemagne’s tomb. Who could resist such a rich scenario?
La Forza del Destino, AKA Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del Sino, is based on a “violent drama” by Spanish writer Angel Pérez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, which takes place during the Spanish War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). Historically speaking, Verdi was intrigued with this conflict, partly because of its Italian connection (see below), but as operas plots go this one is as weird and confusing as they come. At the time it was called “chaotic dramaturgy” and criticized for its “idiocies of plot.” These censures had basis in fact. A superabundance of dead bodies intermingles with callous hatred between characters; war between nations is interspersed with religious ecstasy; gypsies and nobles, revenge and murder, all muddied the soup. Critics also complained of the opera’s “Cook’s tour of Spain,” with characters wandering all over creation from Seville to Córdoba to Cadiz to a monastery near Burgos to the Spanish army’s frontlines near Rome, and finally ending at the monastery.
All these locations must not have made its backers happy. But from the attention-grabbing overture to the magnificent arias and ensembles, the music wins hearts, and the plot matters not a whit. If I sound completely subjective, it’s because I have a soft spot for this work. My very first rehearsal in the Met Opera pit was Forza, with James Levine on the podium and Jon Vickers and Martina Arroyo on stage. Cook’s Tour be damned. From start to finish, this opera is heaven.
Of Verdi’s Spanish operas, Il Trovatore was the most popular in its time, despite the confounding plot based on the Spanish drama El Trobador by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez. Set in fifteenth century Saragossa, the work was parodied in burlesques and satires for its absurd storyline and ambiguous nature of the characters’ relationships, and eventually became fair game for the Marx Brothers’ comic masterpiece A Night at the Opera. Except for the innovative, multifaceted role of the gypsy (Verdi originally wanted to name the opera La Zingara), the central characters maintain the stock love-triangle paradigm. A cursory study of the scenario, with royal troops warring against rebels from the Bay of Biscay to the mountains of Aragon, only serves to confuse the reader. Homeric predestined fates and symbolism – fire and night and the iron chains of captivity – may redeem Trovatore’s plot; but it is the monumental scope of its four leading roles that has brought about the opera’s immortality.
Monarchy, complexities of the human spirit, and the lust for vengeance: Spain’s rich history provided Verdi with a treasure chest of possibilities for sublime music and gripping drama.
¡ Viva España