Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino - Melodramma in four acts. Revised 1869 version
Marquis of Calatrava, Alastair Miles (bass); Donna Leonora, his daughter - Nina Stemme (soprano);
Curra, her chambermaid - Elisabeta Marin (soprano); Don Alvaro, lover of Leonora and of Royal Inca Indian descent - Salvatore Licitra (tenor); Don Carlo of Vargas, Leonora’s brother - Carlos Alvarez (baritone); Preziosilla, a gypsy girl - Nadia Krasteva (mezzo); Fra Melitone, a Friar – Tiziano Bracci (bass); Padre Guardiano, Father Superior - Alastair Miles (bass); Mastro Trabuco, muleteer - Michael Roider (tenor); An Alcade, a mayor – Dan Paul Dumetrescu (tenor); Spanish military surgeon, Clemens Unterreiner (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Zubin Mehta
Director: David Pountney
Set and Costume design: Roy Hudson
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1 March 2008
Picture format: 16:9, HD 1080i. Sound: dts Master Audio 5.0, PCM Stereo. Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean
Booklet English, German, French
UNITEL CLASSICA/C MAJOR BLU-RAY 708204 [161:00]
Verdi wrote La forza del destino after a two year gap from composition following the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera on 17 February 1859. During that period he had become a Deputy in the first parliament of the recently unified Italy. However, he was tiring of that scene when approached for a new opera from the Imperial Italian Theatre in St. Petersburg. With the composer away on Parliamentary business his wife, Giuseppina, handled the correspondence and persuaded Verdi that with suitable provisions the cold in Russia would be manageable and that he should accept the highly lucrative commission. The first suggestion of subject, Victor Hugo’s dramatic poem Ruy Blas with its romantic liaisons across the social divide, met censorship problems. After some struggle for another subject Verdi settled on the Spanish drama Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino 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. The Verdis arrived in St. Petersburg in November 1861, 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 on 10 November 1862 the work was well received with the Czar attending a performance. Opera Rara has issued a sound recording of this original version (see review) and a DVD exists, recorded in St Petersburg in 1998, in a reconstruction of the 1862 sets (Arthaus Music 100 078).
The original version was reprised in St Petersburg in the two seasons following its premiere and was seen in several Italian cities in 1863 as well as in Madrid in 1864 and Vienna in 1865. Verdi withheld the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. It is evident that he recognised the need for alterations early on when he transposed the tenor aria in act 3 downward on the basis that only Tamberlick was capable of meeting its demands. He instructed his publisher, Ricordi, to include the alteration in the scores he hired out. Verdi was also unhappy with some other aspects of the score as it stood, particularly the three violent deaths in the final scene. However, it was not until Tito Ricordi proposed a revival for the 1869 La Scala carnival season that Verdi found a way forward. By then Piave, the original librettist had suffered a stroke that paralysed him for the last eight years of his life and during which Verdi provided much financial help to his family. The task of versifying the revisions fell to Antonio Ghislanzoni who the composer had met at the time of the writing of Attila and with whom he developed a cordial relationship.
The revised La Forza del Destino was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The presentation marked a rapprochement between Verdi and the theatre that he had barred from premieres of his works for over twenty years. The revisions of the score from the original version are significant rather than major and involve the substitution of the prelude by a full overture, which nowadays is often played as a concert piece. A major revision of the end of act three includes the removal of the demanding tenor double aria whilst the whole final scene is amended to avoid the triple deaths. It is replaced by the Father Guardian’s benediction as Leonora dies and Alvaro is left alive (CH.45).
In La forza del destino Verdi writes on a massive dramatic canvas. He described the story as powerful, singular and truly vast (The Operas of Verdi. Budden. Cassell. Vol 2 p.430 et seq). Some cynics have described it as a rambling story of improbabilities and contend that it is Verdi’s darkest opera. It is certainly a story of unrequited love, racial prejudice and violent deaths. Ever the man of the theatre Verdi leavened the dark facets of the story with brighter, even humorous, interludes. The first, in act 2, (CHs.7-13) is set at an inn where Preziosilla, a gypsy woman of easy virtue, is recruiting for the army promising fame and fortune as well as sexual favours. The scene is an ideal counterweight to the accidental death of Leonora’s father at her suitor’s hand in the first act. Further leavening, even humour, comes with the character of the irascible monk Melitone who berates the peasants as he distributes charity (CH. 39) or laments the goings-on in the army camp as he is forced to join a whirling dance with the vivandiers in act 3 (CH.35). Verdi poured great intensity and creativity into this work and the opera contains an overture, scenes, arias and duets that are amongst his finest music. The long melodic cantilena of the meeting between Leonore and Padre Giordano in act 2 scene 2, that starts with Leonore’s aria Sono giunta and concludes with the trio with chorus of La Vergine degli Angeli (CHs.14-21) as she is granted sanctity have, I suggest, no parallel in Italian opera since Bellini’s Norma in 1833. Further, none of comparable length and dramatic intensity are found elsewhere in Verdi’s work.
Given the nature of this work from his mature period it is incumbent on the producer and set designer to clarify the complexities so as to assist the audience, or viewer, to relate the complexities and relationships of the various scenes. It is with regret that I state that the team here manifestly fail in this respect. The failure starts with setting the costumes in the present day. The Father Guardian of the Monastery goes around in a suit and without a tie, belying his status and station. Preziosilla arrives in a red Wild West costume and hat, her friends likewise, and in Hot Pants. The odd drape of a cloak or cassock does little to clarify the religious moments of offering sanctity. The sparse staging of the opening act, a single metal-framed bed, is later contrasted with a meaningless large piece of revolving metal scaffolding that reminds me of the gasometer that marked the entrance to my nearest city for many a year. Add projections during the battle scenes, a hardly recognisable entrance to the Monastery along with the idiosyncratic costumes and many will be confused as to what is going on and why.
Verdi always wrote with singers, general and often specific, in mind. For this dramatic opera he wanted spinto-sized voices. I have already indicated that he watered down the vocal demands on the tenor singing Alvaro for the 1869 version. It still demands substantial vocal weight but also, as Bergonzi demonstrates so superbly on the 1969 EMI audio recording under Gardelli (7 64646 2), considerable vocal nuance. In this performance the Sicilian Salvatore Licitra has the necessary heft, but a complete lack of vocal taste or sensitivity. He slides up to notes and simply belts out the words seemingly without making any effort whatsoever at vocal nuance, colour or expression. With dryness at the top of his voice it’s not even viscerally exciting as it used to be with the likes of fellow Italians Del Monaco or Franco Corelli. In contrast, Alvaro’s implacable pursuer, Don Carlo, brother of Lenora, sung by Carlos Alvarez has the ideal variety of tone allied to strength of voice, awareness of characterisation and expressiveness. He makes a near ideal interpreter of this demanding role. In an era when the shortage of genuine Italianate Verdi baritones is so acute his presence and contribution is particularly welcome as is his frightening histrionic intensity in portraying Don Carlo’s implacable intention to find his sister and her lover. As his sister Leonora, loved by Alvaro, Nina Stemme sings with strong bright, forward lyric tone. She sings the long expressive melodic line of Leonora’s Pace, Pace, mio Dio (CH.43) in the final scene as well as I have heard it since Leontyne Price on her mid-1970s audio recording under Levine (RCA) and surpassing the great American in her later, and last, performances of the role as caught on DVD in 1984 (see review). Elsewhere, she characterises well in her acting and brings welcome nuance to the meaning of the words. In characterisation, along with pleasing tone and expression, she is matched by Nadia Krasteva who conveys a vivacious Preziosilla whose Rataplan (CH.38), by then she is also kitted in Hot Pants, goes with a bang in more ways than one.
As the Father Guardian Alastair Miles’ bass is as lean as his figure. His voice has always been a true bass, but lacking in sonority and none more so than in this role where his tone shows sure signs of drying with age. The combination of his vocal characteristics and costume fail to bring out the humanity that Verdi invests in his music. It is the same with Tiziano Bracci as Melitone. Some have suggested this character was a part-model for his Falstaff. This Melitone, also suffering dryness of tone, manages to miss any humour which is evident in other recordings, visual and audio.
Where Pountney does score over the best sung recent video recording, from Florence in 2007 and reviewed by a colleague, is in his detailed management of the chorus who are always actively involved although the purpose is sometimes unclear. Zubin Mehta conducts both versions. He lets Verdi’s melodic lines speak for themselves and the drama unfolds naturally. The Vienna Staatsoper audience are on best behaviour, or confused, but let the opera proceed without excessive and lengthy interruptions as was at one time their habit.
Robert J Farr
Not helped by quirky producer ideas, updated costumes and variable singing among some of the principals, this hardly competes in one of Verdi’s most melodic scores.
see also review of the DVD release by David Bennett