Verdi started to threaten to retire before he was 50. After composing Un Ballo in Maschera he said he was done and that the life of a gentleman farmer was to be his for the remainder of his life. In 1861 he was approached by the great tenor Enrico Tamberlick, acting as an agent for the Imperial Theater of St Petersburg, with a commision to write new opera. The commission’s sum was sufficient to unretire the middle-aged composer. He agreed to go to Russia to oversee the prima. The prospect of minus 22 degrees didn’t daunt him. Whether he was given that figure in celsius or fahrenheit is unclear, but 22 below on either scale is formidable.
His first inclination for a story was Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas. When he was told that the censors would likely not approve, he told the Russians to shove it. They capitulated and told Verdi he could do anything he wanted short of converting the empire to a republic. By the time of their surrender Verdi had given up on Ruy Blas and moved on to Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino by Ángel de Saavedra y Ramírez de Baquedano, Duque de Rivas.
Piave wrote the libretto, Verdi made two trips to St Petersburg and the opera had its first performance on Nov 10, 1862 with Tamberlink creating the role of Alvaro. The opera was a success with the audience, less so with the critics. It had a big influence on Mussorgsky and his composition of Boris Godunov. It was then performed in Madrid where it was less successful.
Verdi was dissatisfied with the work and had the libretto revised by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the librettist of Aida. He then reworked the score for its Italian premiere in 1869 at La Scala. It is the 1869 version that is routinely performed. The first version has a short prelude that was replaced by the famous overture. The Russian version ends with Alvaro throwing himself into a ravine after he has wiped out the entire Vargas family. In the Italian revision Alvaro is alive at the final curtain, but the Vargas family is still no more.
The reworked ending is far superior to its initial incarnation. It has the chords of doom that are so compelling – four forte chords followed by four piano iterations done in succession. The opera now ends with the great terzetto ‘Non imprecare, umiliati’.
Here is the original end to the opera. It starts immediately after ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ and goes on for about 8 minutes without a lot happening; it’s mostly operatic boilerplate. I can understand why Verdi was dissatisfied with it. If you know the ending regularly performed you’ll recognize a few notes here and there. Appropriately, this excerpt is from a production at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg under Valery Gergiev’s direction.
Now for the standard 1869 edition. I’ll post three performances of it. The first is from Florence in 1953. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts with, in my view, insufficient force. The singers are the young Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, and Cesare Siepi. Baritone Aldo Protti is briefly heard at the start of the excerpt. Del Monaco’s heroic tenor is heard to great advantage. Forza finale 1953
Next is from a 1958 Met performance also with Cesare Siepi. He is joined by Zinka Milanov and Flaviano Labò who had just made a sensational as Alvaro less than two months before this broadcast. Milanov was the best Leonora I ever heard. Fritz Stiedry was a routine conductor, but he does a better job with this music than did Mitropolous. Note the chords. Forza finale 1958
Finally, a more recent performance from Munich in 2013. Jonas Kaufmann is joined by soprano Anja Harteros and bass Vitalij Kowaljow. Asher Fisch conducts. Forza finale 2013
I think it obvious that Verdi got it right the second time around. While Forza has some dry spots, eg the scene in the Inn, at its best it equals anything Verdi ever did.