Forza del Destino is a complicated opera to describe and it does have its flaws. However, it is also one of the most interesting of Verdi's scores. Even if the highlights do not join together very coherently, there are still enough superb dramatic situations and inspired arias for this opera to be recommended. Despite this performance being occasionally rather heavy-handed (a result of what diplomatically might be called its 'unconventional' staging and direction) a good deal of the performance is enjoyable and entertaining.
Act 1 begins with Leonora saying goodnight to her father, the Marquis. Alvaro arrives and after a will-they-won't-they duet they decide to run away together. They have woken up the Marquis who confronts them; Alvaro kills him accidentally when he throws down his gun but before he expires the Marquis curses them both and they flee. So far, so melodramatic! In this production no-one would blame Leonora for wanting to escape her monochrome prison and her stuffy father dressed in a dull suit. Alastair Miles as the Marquis has clear diction but was wobbly to start with. His voice is a little gritty, especially compared to Salvatore Licitra’s clean sound in their confrontation. His rhythm is tight but the voice is not Italianate and despite his efforts – including spitting words out inelegantly – his performance in Act 1 does not dominate as it might. The setting looks institutional and minimalist and the lighting is fiercely unflattering.
Nina Stemme takes her time to warm up in this performance. In Act 1, her legato singing is not the smoothest one has heard in this music, and one waits in vain for a stamp of individuality in her first act aria; the high notes are not ‘floated’ rather they peel out with a degree of power but not elegance. Even here one must concede her voice is at its best in the more extrovert moments when one appreciates the glint in her voice which has carrying power but is not heavy in the middle range. She does not hit the beat with much alacrity, however, and she can at times drag down her duet with Licitra. Licitra’s voice is in fine fettle; he sounds warmed up even in his first entry and he phrases more lyrically that the other singers in this performance.
The camera work is too frequently close-up with the singers' expressions looking more clumsy than necessary; they are projecting into a large house after-all and they all have been encouraged to use stylised movements. The setting is modern with some features telling of the 1920s – Curra, the housemaid's bob and servants outfit – other details generically modern but difficult to date: Leonora's muted clothes. Omnipresent is the red sword impaled in the stage to represent the violence and curse central to this opera – it is wielded by the Marquis and later Don Carlo. Licitra is a little too reliant on stock gestures throughout, Stemme less so. So far, Licitra's is the only Italianate voice in an international cast.
In Act 2 Scene 1 we are introduced to Don Carlo, who is disguised as a student, and is seeking revenge for his father’s murder and the shame of Leonora eloping. Álvarez's voice is exceptionally fine and his phrasing is not exaggerated but lyrical. He is able all the same to provide the broad tones required of ‘son pereda son rico d'onore’ with gusto. The voice itself is rich but has a well-integrated brightness higher up without shrillness. The legato sound is smooth and the diction is a model of theatrical clarity. His assumption lacks the individual sweep and felicities of Tagliabue, Merrill or Warren but that might be said of most singers.
The synchronised dancing of the crowds is visually interesting with the blood red costumes a welcome change from the muted first act. I am intrigued by the use of the cowboys and bibles with a gun-toting Preziosilla as a criticism, or at least caricature of right-wing America. We meet Preziosilla who is a camp-follower who sings a martial tune explaining that Spain and Germany are at war. Krasteva gives a large-scale performance. Her voice is rich without shrillness, her phrases are occasionally clipped but rhythmically alert and her voice melds together well although she sometimes hurls out high notes. Her tone and diction are welcome in Rataplan – her voice has contralto-like depth and she is certainly an artist to watch. She commands the stage even if she sometimes oversteps the mark as in the over-the-top ending to Rataplan which is perhaps 'in character'. Stemme's voice swells marvellously over the choir, baritone and mezzo in act 2 and she also phrases better than in Act 1.
In Act 2 Scene 2, Leonora, who has fled to a monastery to hide, sings a prayer to the Madonna and, following a discussion with Padre Guardiano, zealously dedicates her life to prayer in isolation. Miles is better suited to Padre Guardiano both because his voice warms a little through the evening and we can appreciate the smooth style of his singing unlike his turn as the Marquis whose role is either a whisper or a shout. Having the same singer as Padre Guardiano and the Marquis is interesting but sometimes feels jarring. His voice is integrated and recognisable only a while into the second act whereabouts he goes from strength to strength. His duet with Stemme is his best singing so far. Her high notes begin to soar as her voice warms up and they not only gain in sheen but focus. One has the feeling that this could have been a more consistently successful recording had she been able to take time and record the work in the studio. Her rhythm improves also as the voice gains in responsiveness such as in ‘Son giunta’ where she sounds more like herself and the improvement in the middle of her voice is marked.
This scene is framed by light-hearted antics from Melitone, a monk. Different images are projected on the screen such as the gun that killed the Marquis and bullets representing that accident and the background warfare. Lighting such as the green over Don Carlo and the blue when Leonora is praying are very atmospheric. Stemme's wide-eyed portrayal is haunting with the hysteria of her character more in evidence than is typical. Some imagery is overdone such as the cross on which she lies face down.
In Act 3 Alvaro soliloquises on his fate. Salvatore Licitra sings with superb tone but is short-breathed at the start of his aria. Also there are times his voice sounds a bit brittle and bright for the role which can seem a size too big. In other episodes his performance is as ardent and his voice as caramel smooth as you could hope. Crude animations of guns and bullets and blood emphasise the violence of this play – something which can be forgotten given the beautiful elegance of the music. Occasionally the image is not ideally clear being blurred on close-ups. Alvaro rescues Don Carlo (both being in disguise) and earns his gratitude – they subsequently swear perpetual friendship. The use of WW2 film is contrived and clichéd during 'fight' scenes, I think – especially since it makes the soldiers on stage look impossibly fake. Carlos Álvarez is the most natural actor in the production with a vitality which highlights Licitra's limitations as an actor.
Alvaro and Carlo run off to help in a fight and the next event is Alvaro, wounded, being brought in on a stretcher. The duet ‘Solene in quest'ora’ is one of the highlights of this score. Their complementary qualities - contrasting light and dark voices with Álvarez focusing on phrases, Licitra on dynamics – blend to mutual benefit in the duet which is even better than the sum of its parts. Carlo promises Alvaro the order of Calatrava which he refuses – to Carlo's confusion. Alvaro has Carlo promise to burn his papers and is taken off for surgery. Carlo, the real identify of Alvaro beginning to dawn on him, goes through the box of papers only to find Leonora's painting. Álvarez's best singing all night is ‘Urna fatale’ – a challenging aria in which he excels. Just then, we hear from the surgeon that Alvaro has survived the surgery which Don Carlo interprets as an opportunity to fulfil his revenge later. Álvarez is highly exciting in the scene where he gloats that he will be able to exact his revenge.
The next scene is back at the soldier's camp which is upbeat and lively in contrast with the solemnities befalling the protagonists. The carousel of injured soldiers followed by the high-kicking dances with the nurses is highly entertaining. Verdi's gift for comedy, as evident in 'Falstaff', is sadly lacking in Melitone's scenes which, as usual for this opera, quickly fall flat and out-live their welcome. Preziosilla again rallies the troops – this time with WW2 airplanes projected on the screen - and as they leave, Don Carlo and Alvaro reappear. Don Carlo confronts Alvaro who is initially confused but relieved that Leonora lives. They are split apart and Carlo is sent to jail, Alvaro decides to become a monk and live peacefully.
Act Four. Following a light-hearted scene with Melitone, there is another duet between Alvaro and Carlo, where Don Carlo presses Alvaro to fight and Alvaro asks for forgiveness. Álvarez is suitably manic-looking. Eventually, Alvaro rises to the bait and they fight. In the next scene, Leonora sings a prayer, bathed in yellow light, only to be interrupted by fighting nearby which, it transpires is Alvaro and Don Carlo. Carlo is mortally injured and Alvaro calls the hermit (Leonora) to give him last rites. They recognise each other, as does Don Carlo who fatally stabs Leonora. Padre Guardiano arrives to help - Leonora had wrung a bell - but can only pray with them. Alvaro is entirely dejected and alone – the curse has had its effect, the lighting an icy blue. Miles' reappearance in Act 4 carries the right emotional punch with his mellow tone and increasingly subtle acting an asset. Stemme's best singing of the night is ‘Pace, Pace mio dio’ where she is mightily impressive. She shades some phrases and her voice is unified with better high notes which, while not floated very beautifully, are nonetheless secure. She is passionate and the final 'maledizione!' is well projected. She is not ideally steady in the finale but she is at her most animated.
Licitra's performance grows in stature with each phrase and by Act 4 he is in superb voice, ardent in a manner reminiscent of Aragall – no higher praise - although his technique is not so secure. Frequently he evinces one of the most beautiful tenor voices of recent times even if his singing is not very subtle at times. He is vivid in Act 4, however, acting with the voice without the histrionics of Tucker or Di Stefano. The voice is noticeably free in the important upper middle registers. In the finale his suffering has eloquence although at times his singing is untidy. His untimely death from a motorcycle accident in 2011 makes his recorded output all the more precious and this is a fine memento of his art. Given the demands of the role this is perhaps the most challenging of his recorded performances and his success is a significant achievement.
The chorus’s contributions are very effective in general although they are sometimes a little too smooth and tame and could do with more bite. If their whole performance was as the start of Act 3 their achievement would have been something to cherish.
The Italian sound of Tiziano Bracci is notably smooth and Melitone's buffo mannerisms suit him as used quite sparingly here. He uses diction cleverly – sometimes deploying a snarl, sometimes explosive consonants, for emphasis – but his performance could be funnier if he acted more with the voice. In Act 3 he is more effective and one can imagine him as a fine Sacristan or Bartolo. His tone is attractive although one might imagine a more varied shading or less hectoring approach at times – in a word more subtlety. His is a decent performance nonetheless.
The other singers are fine including the surgeon by Clemens Unterreiner although his voice is not Italianate.
The conducting is proficient but not always inspired. The first half of the overture is rushed but after a while it comes together and the tempo allows the music to ‘sing’ as opposed to skating over the surface. After that Mehta relaxes and although his performance can seem a bit limp in-between set-pieces the strengths of the opera are generally well accounted for. The accompaniment occasionally has the inevitable quality of his best work from the 1960s and 1970s. The introduction to Act 3 is perhaps his best work here and the duet in Act 3 holds together satisfyingly.
I would argue that this is the best modern recording of Forza – more exciting than the Urmana/Giordani/Guelfi set also conducted by Zubin Mehta and a step up vocally on Branchini/Zulian/di Felice conducted by Lucas Karitynos on Dynamic. The proviso is that the staging is one you will either love or hate. For audio versions my personal favourites are Caniglia/Masini/Tagliabue conducted by Marinuzzi, Price/Tucker/Merrill conducted by Thomas Schippers or Price/Domingo/Milnes conducted by James Levine.