Giuseppe Verdi’s “Power of Fate”
Everyone has a godly side and a satanic side
In his 25-year tenure as head of the Berliner Volksbühne Frank Castorf established himself as the most original director of his generation. He is now bringing “La forza del destino” to the stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Jörg Königsdorf spoke with him
Herr Castorf, “La forza del destino” is an unconventional title when compared to the bulk of Verdi’s other opera titles – it’s not named after a character, like Macbeth, Aida or Othello, but is rather a kind of manifesto. What’s this “Power of Fate’ about, actually?
It amounts to the canonisation of chance. For Verdi the title is a confession of faith. As an agnostic, he does not believe that the world is under our control. We are subject to fate; we have no influence over the world and cannot change it. And this power wielded by fate is plain to see right at the start of the opera, when a guy declares “I don’t want to kill anyone” and throws down his pistol, which goes off, shooting the Marquis straight through the heart. Everything that follows on from that incident proceeds according to a plan that no one can predict. I like this insistence that every individual has a godly side to their personality and a satanic side. It’s in direct conflict to the prevailing belief nowadays that everything can be mapped out and everyone can be integrated into society and moulded to be a force for good in line with our democratic system. I’m with Verdi on this and am more inclined to go with the power of fate.
This inner duality between good and evil – or just between a person’s nature and his or her nurturing – makes it easy for destiny to introduce banal strokes of chance that steer people’s lives in one direction or another.
Yes, everything here is ambiguous. On the one hand you have a veneer of morals, conventions and respectability, on the other hand people’s inner strength rebelling against all that. Take Leonora, the main female character: we see early on the extent to which she is a product of her relationship with her father, who has echoes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler in the authoritarian way he lords it over people. But then she displays a very vibrant, sexual fantasy that overrides all these concepts of honour, virginity and blinkered thinking. Or Alvaro, the mestizo, who has polarisation in his blood, being the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess: he sees himself as Son of the Sun and is caught up with the idea of reincarnating the empire of his ancestors while at the same time yearning for Leonora to return his love and wishing for a quiet life devoid of violence and strife. What we see in “La forza del destino” is an ongoing contradiction between human nature and human ideology.
What part does the music play in all this?
As with Wagner, Verdi’s music is a search for meaning and a quest for the sensual. It represents the vitalistic principle impelling the characters from within. You could say it’s notational shagging. And the emotional presence of the music gives the work its modern-day immediacy, because the music is not at all about depicting the historical setting of a an early-18th-century conflict but about presenting us with something bigger than ourselves, something outside our self. There is a state of nullification in godliness – or whatever you want to call it – just as in death. I’m not making an ironic comment here; I want to transpose this existential question to a de-historicised period.
The Naples of 1943, which Curzio Malaparte describes in his novel “The Skin”.
From Malaparte’s writings I sensed in him the same attitude towards the duality within people as I had found with Verdi. Malaparte describes Naples after its liberation by Allied forces, a city whose populace became the willing henchmen enabling the liberators to satisfy their darkest urges – liberators whose actual role was as purveyors of freedom and democracy. He portrays this perverted state in a way that blurs the distinction between realism and surrealism. Malaparte and Verdi do this, but so do Dante, Bataille and Victor Hugo. Which is why I place great importance on having a veristic stage set and acting that is faithful to the actions portrayed. I want us to be up close, seeing the body working and sweating while the singing envelopes us as in a dream.