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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino - Melodramma in four acts. (Original version)
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on the novel ‘Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino’ by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas.
First performed at the Imperial Italian Theatre, St. Petersburg, on November 10th 1862
Marquis of Calatrava, Roderick Kennedy (bass); Donna Leonora, his daughter, Martina Arroyo (sop); Curra, her chambermaid, Alison Truefitt (sop); Don Alvaro, lover of Leonora and of Royal Inca Indian descent, Kenneth Collins (ten); Don Carlo of Vargas, Leonora’s brother, Peter Glossop (bar); Preziosilla, Janet Coster (mezzo); Fra Melitone, Derek Hammond Stroud (bass-bar); Padre Guardiano Don Garrard (bass); Fra Trabuco, muleteer, Kenneth Bowen (ten); Alcade. Philip O'Reilly (ten); Spanish military surgeon, David Fieldsend (ten)
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Matheson
rec.Golders Green Hippodrome, London on 3rd August 1981
OPERA RARA ORCV 304 [3 CDs: 68.08 + 57.33 + 31.03]

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In La forza del destino Verdi writes on a massive dramatic canvas. With its story of unrequited love, racial prejudice and violent deaths, some contend it is his darkest opera. Ever the man of the theatre, Verdi leavened the dark facets of the story with brighter, even humorous, interludes. The first in act 2 is an inn scene where Preziosilla, a gypsy woman of easy virtue, is recruiting for the army, promising fame and fortune as well as sexual favours (CD 1 Trs. 8-10). The scene is an ideal counterweight to the accidental death of Leonora’s father at her suitor’s hand in the previous scene. Further leavening, even humour, comes with the character of the irascible monk Melitone who berates the peasants as he distributes charity (CD 3 trs. 1-2) or laments the goings-on in the army camp as he is forced to join a whirling dance with the vivandiers in act 3 (CD tr. 17). Verdi poured great intensity and creativity into this work of his mature compositional period, and the opera contains scenes, arias and duets that are amongst his finest music.

La forza del destino was written after a two-year gap from composition following the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera (February 17th 1859). This was a period of turmoil in the states of Italy. On 28th April of that year the Austrian army had invaded and Victor Emmanuel had called on the Italian population to rise up and fight for their independence. On April 29th Verdi married Giuseppina Strepponi, his long time companion. He was 45, she 43. Whilst the regularisation of their relationship ensured Giuseppina’s situation in the turbulent times, it also made easier their social acceptance and movement in the political circles in which Verdi was increasingly involved. During the ensuing months Verdi, and his close friend Mariani, paid for and helped import guns for the local militias. With the assistance of Garibaldi’s troops and the machinations of Cavour, who Verdi described as ‘the father of Italy’, a unified nation came into existence. At Cavour’s insistence Verdi stood, and was elected to Italy’s first National Parliament. This was not exactly what Verdi had intended for this period of his life. Rather, he had hoped to spend time and money, on his estate at St. Agata. Nor was Verdi wholly comfortable amongst the political activities. Although he in fact remained a deputy until the end of the first parliament in 1865, he had earlier asked Cavour, who died in June 1861, for release as he had been approached for another opera. This overture had come from the Imperial Italian Theatre in St. Petersburg. With Verdi busy away at the parliament, Giuseppina managed the correspondence and persuaded Verdi that with suitable provisions the cold in Russia would be manageable and he should accept the lucrative commission. The first suggestion of a subject, Victor Hugo’s dramatic poem ‘Ruy Blas’, with its romantic liaisons across the social divide, met censorship problems. After a struggle for another subject Verdi settled on the Spanish drama ‘Don Alvaro, o La fuerza destino’ by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. This was deemed suitable in Russia and Verdi asked his long time collaborator Piave to provide the libretto. Verdi worked throughout the summer of 1860 as Giuseppina made the domestic arrangements for the shipment of Bordeaux wine, champagne, rice, macaroni cheese and salami for themselves and two servants. They expected to be in St. Petersburg for three months and travelled to Paris to take a direct train.

The Verdi’s arrived in St. Petersburg in November, but during rehearsals the principal soprano became ill. As there was no possible substitute the premiere was postponed until the following autumn and after some sightseeing the Verdis returned home. At its delayed premiere the work was well received with the Czar attending a performance. However, Verdi himself was not wholly satisfied with his creation, and after its Rome premiere in April 1863 he withdrew it for revision. This recording is of the original St. Petersburg version.

In 1869 Verdi wrote an expanded overture, a new last scene, and re-arranged the numbers in the latter part of act 3 so as to finish with Preziosilla’s Rataplan della Gloria. This also resulted in the loss of the tenor aria and cabaletta (CD 2 trs. 22-23). It also involved the relocation of the duet where Carlo reveals that he has identified Alvaro as the killer of his father, and he believes seducer of his sister, for whom he has been searching with intent to assuage the Calatrava family honour. It is in the 1869 revision, albeit often with cuts, that the opera is all too infrequently heard today.

Unlike the previous Opera Rara issues in this series of Verdi’s original versions derived from BBC broadcasts, Macbeth (review), Simon Boccanegra (review) and Les Vêpres Siciliennes (review), there is a studio competitor. This is the 1995 Philips recording deriving from performances at the Kirov opera - a version of which is also available in a DVD format (Arthaus Music). Most interestingly, that production was based on the sets of the first production in St. Petersburg in 1862. The all-Russian cast are singers of international repute. Otherwise, other studio recordings are of the 1869 version. The most notable of these feature two of the greatest Verdi sopranos of their generation. They are those with Leontyne Price, partnered by Placido Domingo as Alvaro and Sherrill Milnes as Carlo (RCA), and that with Martina Arroyo, also the Leonora on this issue, alongside the incomparable Carlo Bergonzi as Alvaro and Pierro Cappuccilli as his non-pareil antagonist under the idiomatic baton of Lamberto Gardelli (EMI).

Unlike two earlier issues in this series, this recording was made without the presence of an audience. This has the immense benefit of allowing the conductor to build dramatic cohesion and tension without unnatural breaks for applause. I was not unduly impressed by Matheson’s conducting of Macbeth, also made without audience, finding him more vital in Boccanegra. In this performance his balance of the dramatic, lyric and foreboding Verdian cantilena are most impressive, and make a significant contribution to the success of the whole. Like its successor opera, Don Carlos of 1867, La forza del destino requires six principal singers. As a consequence of that requirement, and the demands made on the soloists in terms of vocal weight and legato, performances of the work tend to be thin on the ground. By the early 1970s I had managed to see nearly all of Verdi’s major operas and a few of his less well known earlier ones also. The decade was a heyday of Verdi singing at the British International House, Covent Garden, and also with the Sadlers Wells (later ENO) and Welsh National touring companies. Despite all of that, La forza del destino had eluded me, as had the opportunity to hear Martina Arroyo (b. 1940) in a staged production. I had been greatly impressed by her recorded Leonora in the EMI version referred to, and which remains my favourite recording of the 1869 revision. So when a Covent Garden revival of André Anderson’s 1962 production, with sparse sets by Sam Wanamaker, was announced for the late autumn of 1973, with Miss Arroyo as Leonora, I determined to be there. On December 29th at only the 20th presentation of the work at Covent Garden I sat, expectantly, in my A row amphitheatre seat to await those dramatic first chords. Before that happened, the curtains parted and the Musical Director, Colin Davis, stepped out to announce Martina Arroyo’s indisposition and replacement. There are no compensations for such disappointments. However, her presence on this recording serves to remind me what a consummate Verdi singer she was. Inevitably, she sounds a more mature Leonora than for Gardelli, recorded twelve years earlier. Any loss of youthfulness is more than compensated for by her command of the Verdian line and ability to soar over the orchestra in long arching phrases with full tone, skills that remained undimmed. The role of Leonora is not merely demanding of the singer in respect of line and tessitura but more importantly in terms of characterisation. Leonora has to convey the whole gamut of emotions. These encompass love, as she ponders leaving her father to elope (CD 1 tr. 3), fear, as hidden from view she hears her brother at the inn, and relief at arriving at the monastery and hearing the monks in Son giunta (CD 1 tr.15). She pleads for forgiveness of her sin in Madre, Madre, pietosa, (CD 1 tr.16) through the soaring phrases of La Vergine degli Angeli (CD 2 tr.23) and we hear despair in her final plea to God in Pace, pace (CD 3 tr.8). In this performance Miss Arroyo conveys these varying emotions to render a formidable interpretation that is at least comparable with the very best on record.

Yorkshire-born Peter Glossop as Carlo is another singer with an enviable international reputation as an interpreter of Verdi. He braved, and conquered, the ‘bear-pits’ of the Italian provincial theatres at Palermo, Parma and Naples before being acclaimed in this repertoire at La Scala, the Paris Opera and the Met. I heard him in many roles with the Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden companies. His full-toned baritone had a wide palette of colours and he always fully identified with, and characterised, whatever role he was singing - a fact that endeared him to audiences. In his recent autobiography ‘The Story of a Yorkshire Baritone’ (Guidon, 2004) he recalls the recording sessions for the Macbeth in this series, but confuses the person of his soprano partner, attributing the role of Lady Macbeth to Martina Arroyo, his Leonora here. As Macbeth in the earlier issue in this series, I felt he sounded past his considerable best. Although his portrayal here is not the wide-ranging interpretation and characterisation he might have recorded ten years earlier, he is, as always, fully committed and sings strongly and with varied colour. Only when he is singing full-out is there a slight sign of strain (CD 2 trs. 20-21).

Alvaro is sung by Birmingham-born Kenneth Collins. He graduated from the chorus at Covent Garden to sing many Verdi roles with Welsh National Opera and English National Opera before debuting at New York City Opera and later at the Maggio Musicale in Florence as Radames in Aida. Whilst he has not the capacity of Bergonzi to ravish a Verdian phrase, he sings strongly and his Alvaro is suitably agonised in La vita e inferno at the start of act 3 (CD 2 tr. 2) and in the aria deleted in the revision at the end of the act (CD 2 trs. 22-23). Don Garrard conveys appropriate gravitas as well as humanity and humility as Padre Guardiano, whilst Derek Hammond-Stroud in the near buffa role of Melitone relishes his music. He could perhaps have put more of a smile in Melitone’s reaction to the goings-on in the army camp (CD 2 tr.17). Janet Coster sings accurately and with verve as Preziosilla and her Rataplan della Gloria is a fine call to arms (CD 2 tr. 18). All these singers were stalwarts of the British opera scene over the twenty or so years prior to this recording. They bring their vast stage experience, particularly in the Verdi repertoire, to their portrayals. They may not all have the vocal beauty of their competitors in the international studio recordings, but they understand the Verdi idiom and it shows in their characterisation of the various roles. This is particularly relevant in the direct competition from the Gergiev recording of the 1862 original version. With one exception, all the principals on that recording sing with distinction. The downside for me is the somewhat idiosyncratic and rather glottal vocal production that often characterises Russian singers when singing in Italian. A massive plus of this recording is the performance of the BBC Singers. I often enthuse over the particular patina and squilla of an Italian opera chorus in Verdi’s music. Aided by a clear and well-balanced recording, and their discipline, the chorus here are a match for the La Scala forces on Muti’s rather dry live recording of the 1869 version from that theatre (EMI on CD; Opus Art on DVD).

Whilst Verdi was correct in his recognition of the need to revise his original creation, this coherent performance highlights the validity and gauntness, even brutality, of the original with its stark ending of multiple deaths. The composer was ever caring of this work, refusing the opportunity of performances, and hence income, when he thought a theatre’s roster of singers would not do it justice. In either version, La forza del destino is a work that needs an ensemble of singers fully immersed and versed in the Verdi idiom. The presence of such singers in this performance, together with a similar understanding from the conductor, and a vibrant idiomatic contribution from the chorus, combine to give a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of the parts and one that can stand alongside any rival of either version in the catalogue. It is a welcome and thoroughly recommendable addition to the available recordings of one of Verdi’s finest creations.

Robert J Farr

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