Anyone unfamiliar with
this opera from Verdi’s middle period
should not hesitate to correct that
omission. Never mind the plot, which
is a good deal less implausible than
those of many mainstream repertoire
operas. Its diverse dramatic ingredients
afford wide scope for Verdi’s invention,
and he fully meets the challenge with
consistently superb music. In particular,
the duets for Alvaro and Carlo and Leonora’s
scene with Padre Guardiano respectively
are among the finest in Verdi’s output.
Premiered in St. Petersburg
in 1862 – opening with a completely
different prelude from the famous one
– it was revised in 1869 for La Scala.
The revision, in every respect an improvement,
is the version nearly always performed.
The two essential reasons
for owning this performance of La
forza del destino – in preference
to all rivals, in spite of a few small
cuts – are the incomparable artistry
of Maria Callas and the incisive, completely
authoritative conducting of Tullio Serafin.
For one small example of Serafin’s superb
direction, listen to the conclusion
of the Alvaro/Carlo scene in Act 3 –
marked Allegro agitato e presto.
Here he achieves an electric intensity
where the first violins accompany with
piano triplets which really bristle.
Serafin is never frenetic, yet he creates
maximum drama. A further example encapsulating
all his finest qualities would be the
very final scene of the opera. It must
be emphasised that his near-ideal conducting
contributes enormously to the desirability
of this set.
I can’t pretend to
be a great fan of Richard Tucker. He
is reliable and technically impressive,
but often there is an unlovely, slightly
dry, toneless quality to his singing
– no ringing, no bloom. In Act 3 especially,
his overwrought emotionalism, with sobs
and gasps in almost every phrase, I
find unattractive and unconvincing.
Tagliabue (as Carlo) was fifteen years
older, yet I actually prefer his rather
more lyrically sustained delivery. Nicola
Rossi-Lemeni as Padre Guardiano is a
little woolly-toned but nevertheless
lyrical. Elena Nicolai’s Preziosilla
is frightfully squally. Among the smaller
roles, Renato Capecchi’s Melitone undoubtedly
gave me most pleasure.
Callas invests everything
she sings with genuine human involvement,
exposing even more Tucker’s hammier
outpourings. In the presence of such
great interpretative genius most other
singers seem distinctly lesser mortals.
Yet her astounding virtues seem lost
on those opera buffs who are content
with generalised fine singing. What
is any kind of singing worth – whether
opera or lieder – if the text is not
invested with genuine feeling and meaning?
In this respect Callas set new standards
which, sadly, very few singers have
even approached. Leonora is one of Verdi’s
more complex heroines, her development
encompassing indecision, desperation,
terror and grandeur. Only Callas traces
this development with artistry, drama
and supreme musicianship. Odd notes
are raw, unfocused or unattractive,
but this is such a small price to pay.
The last fifteen tracks
on disc 3 are devoted to nearly an hour
of highlights from the same opera, originally
issued the year after the Callas set
appeared. This is no mere filler, but
a valuable addition, with the celebrated
Zinka Milanov as Leonora. Milanov has
an admirable voice, full, rounded, secure
and satisfying, without the deep musicianship
and subtlety of Callas.
Michael Scott’s notes
include a synopsis (no text), interesting
background to the recording (including
Walter Legge’s unflattering and unenlightened
comments about Callas), and biographies
of the principal singers and Serafin.
Recorded sound is also fine. However,
all this seems irrelevant when one can
acquire a great Callas performance in
a wonderful Verdi opera for under £20.