For nearly two years after the premiere of Un ballo in maschera, Verdi seemed uninterested in composing. No doubt his mind was occupied with other duties, both domestic (he married Giuseppina Strepponi) and political (he was nominated, in 1861, as a deputy in the new Italian parliament). In late 1860, a commission from the Imperial Theater of St. Petersburg prompted Verdi to break his silence as an artist.
Francesco Maria Piave based his four-act libretto on the 1835 Spanish play, Don Alvaro, o La fuerza del sino, by Angel di Saavedra (1791-1865), who was influenced by Victor Hugo. Into this, Verdi inserted a scene from Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) Wallenstein's Camp, as translated by Andrea Maffei, which the composer had long wished to set. By November 1861, La forza del destino was complete except for the orchestration, which Verdi usually finished after experiencing the acoustics of the proposed theater. The final product is Verdi's most sprawling, dramatically intricate opera.
The premiere of La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) was planned for the first part of the 1861-1862 season, but the prima donna became ill and the production was postponed. The premiere, on November 10, 1862, was not as successful as Verdi had wished, and the next year he began altering the score. On February 27, 1869, a revised version with additions by Antonio Ghislanzoni, was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Verdi and Piave create a tangled tale in which the characters come together through coincidence. Melitone and Preziosilla provide asides and comic elements as the three main characters, Donna Leonora, Don Carlo, and Don Alvaro play out their tragic parts. The chorus, appearing in nearly every scene, is of greater importance than in any other of Verdi's operas and has some of the most famous numbers in the opera, including, "Compagni, sostiamo" (new for 1869) and "Rataplan, rataplan," both in Act Three.
One of the major differences between the 1862 and 1869 versions is the overture. In the first version, we find a concise prelude. Verdi expanded this in 1869 to a lengthy assemblage of melodies from the opera, stressing a three-note motive that is often called the "fate" motive, and a rising, four-note scale associated with Leonora. Verdi was not concerned with overall structure in this potpourri of tunes. The finale of the last act underwent the greatest changes between versions. In the first, Alvaro kills Carlo in a duel, Leonora enters to be reunited with Alvaro only to be stabbed by the dying Carlo, and Alvaro throws himself from a mountaintop (this was not the lighthearted Italian opera the St. Petersburg audience expected). In the revised version (more likely to be staged today), the duel occurs offstage, as does Carlos' stabbing of Leonora, who returns to the stage for the trio, "Non imprecare, umiliati." As the mode shifts from minor to major, Alvaro exclaims that he is redeemed.