It Must Have Been Fate: Verdi's 'La Forza del Destino'
The opera has a complex plot, but really only three main characters. Understanding those characters, and what drives them, can go a long way toward clarifying the story.
First there's Don Alvaro. He's the son of a disgraced Spanish nobleman and an Inca princess. He was born in the new world, and his parents have been executed. Back in Spain, Alvaro is trying to establish his reputation. But, given his ancestry, he's frowned upon in noble society, and many people simply call him "The Indian."
The other two characters to focus on are brother and sister, Carlo and Leonora. They're the son and daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava, head of a proud but fading noble house.
The action begins in Leonora's rooms in the Calatrava mansion. After her father says good night and retires, Leonora and her maid, Curra, quietly prepare to leave. Leonora has fallen in love with Alvaro. Her father disapproves of the relationship — to put it mildly. So Leonora and Alvaro have made plans to elope, and Alvaro is expected at any moment.
Leonora is still waffling as to whether she should come clean, and tell her father about their plans. Before she can make up her mind, Alvaro arrives, and as they're about to leave, they hear her father coming up the stairs. When he discovers Leonora and Alvaro together, the Marquis promptly insults Alvaro and disowns his daughter.
Alvaro says Leonora is innocent of any wrongdoing. Calatrava won't listen, and challenges Alvaro to a duel. In an act of submission, Alvaro throws down his pistol, offering his own life for his supposed transgressions. But when the gun hits the floor, it accidentally goes off, and Calatrava is fatally wounded. He curses Leonora as he dies, and she escapes with Alvaro.
ACT TWO begins more than a year later, at a roadside inn near a small, Spanish town. Leonora and Alvaro have been separated. Carlo, Leonora's brother, has vowed to avenge his father's death by killing both Alvaro and his own sister.
By coincidence, Carlo and Leonora are both staying at the inn. Leonora is traveling in disguise, as a teenaged boy. She spots Carlo from her window as he arrives, and hides in her room to avoid him. Carlo is also incognito, pretending to be a poor student. Carlo knows about the "boy" staying in an upstairs room, and he's suspicious. He asks around about this mysterious guest, but gets no answers.
A gypsy woman called Preziosilla tells everyone about the war being fought in Italy, against the Germans. She urges young men to join the cause, and they agree. The rousing scene is interrupted when a group of pilgrims passes by.
Carlo then tells the others his story, as Leonora eavesdrops from her window. He says he's been tracking an Indian who seduced his sister, and now thinks the man has fled back to South America.
The next scene takes place outside a monastery in the mountains. Leonora, thinking Alvaro has abandoned her, has decided to seek refuge. She rings the monastery bell, and a Monk named Melitone goes to fetch the Father Superior. Leonora tells him her story, saying she wants to live out her life as a pious hermit.
The monks decide she can live alone in a nearby cave. They'll leave food for her, and she'll be given a bell. When she grows old, and feels she's near death, she can ring this bell and someone will come to perform the last rights. Until then, she will never be disturbed. Leonora agrees, and the monks file into the monastery.
As ACT THREE opens, Alvaro is in Italy, fighting with the Spanish army alongside the Italians. There's a commotion nearby. Carlo, who is also fighting with the army, is under attack, and Alvaro saves his life. Both have joined the war under false names, so neither man knows who the other really is, and they quickly declare a pact of eternal friendship.
The scene changes to the Spanish army camp, where men are watching the battle progress. Their army wins, but afterward Alvaro is carried in, severely wounded. Carlo reassures him, saying he'll receive the order of Calatrava for his bravery. When Alvaro hears the name Calatrava he says "never," and Carlo begins to wonder if his new friend may actually be his old enemy.
Thinking he's about to die, Alvaro gives Carlo the key to his trunk, saying it contains a packet that must be burned after his death, without being opened. Carlo promises he'll see to it. When he opens the trunk and finds the packet he has second thoughts, but decides to keep his word.
However, he can't resist rummaging around in Alvaro's other belongings, and he finds a picture of Lenora. Now, knowing Alvaro's real identity, he prays for the wounded man to live -- so he can kill him himself. When the surgeon announces that Alvaro is going to pull through, Carlo rejoices. Now, he'll finally have a chance to avenge his father.
The next scene is in another military encampment. Learning that Alvaro has fully recovered, Carlo confronts him, but the two are separated by a patrol of soldiers and Carlo is dragged away. Alvaro throws down his sword, and swears he'll retire to a peaceful life in a monastery.
Preziosilla appears, along with other women who have been following the army. She offers to tell fortunes for the assembled soldiers. Groups of peasants and beggars also enter the camp, along with the monk Melitone, who is shouted down when he tries to deliver a sermon. To close the act, Preziosilla leads the flamboyant, "Rataplan" chorus.
At the start of ACT FOUR five years have passed, and the story resumes outside the monastery where Alvaro has taken refuge. It's the same monastery where Leonora sought protection as a hermit many years ago. The cranky Melitone complains about the new friar called Father Raffaele, the name Alvaro has assumed.
The monastery's bell rings and the monks find Carlo at the gate, inquiring about this so-called Father Raffaele. When Melitone calls for him, the two enemies confront each other again. Carlo wants to fight it out, while Alvaro offers a truce. But when Carlo insults Alvaro as a half-breed, Alvaro has had enough. The two go off, looking for a suitable place to fight a duel.
The last scene takes place in a remote valley, outside the cave where Leonora has been living. In the aria "Pace, mio dio" — "Peace, my lord" — she expresses her love for God, and for Alvaro. When she hears people approaching she curses them for intruding, and retreats into the cavern.
Carlo and Alvaro appear, with swords clashing, and Carlo is mortally wounded. Suspecting that someone is in the cave, Alvaro calls out. When Leonora emerges, the two recognize each other. She joins him briefly and then runs off to help her brother. Before long, she staggers back, bleeding from a knife wound. Carlo stabbed her as he was dying and now she's near death as well. The Father Superior appears, along with the other monks. As they pray together Leonora dies, leaving Alvaro to declare that he's been cursed by fate, yet redeemed by Heaven.