After the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera
in Rome and with no contracts pressing, the Rome impresario, Jacovacci, attempted to persuade the composer to sign a contract for a new stage work. Verdi was 46 years old and had composed twenty-three operas in twenty years. In view of the trouble with the censor in Naples, where Un Ballo in Maschera
should have been staged, he had not faced the pressures of composition for nearly a year. He announced to a small circle of friends, including Jacovacci, that he had given up composing and intended to return to his farm and enjoy the fruits of his labours in a more relaxed manner.
However, the fight for the unification of Italy was won and Cavour, the father of that fight, persuaded Verdi to stand for Italy’s first National Parliament. He did so and was elected. Verdi attended assiduously until Cavour’s premature and untimely death when his interest declined. Meanwhile, in December 1860, whilst Verdi was away in Turin on political business, Giuseppina received a letter from a friend in Russia. Also enclosed was an invitation from the great Italian dramatic tenor Enrico Tamberlick, who Verdi knew and admired. On behalf of the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg the letter invited Verdi to write an opera for the following season. Despite the likelihood of temperatures of minus 22 degrees below zero, the prospect of a visit to Imperial Russia appealed to Giuseppina. She promised to use all endeavours to try to persuade Verdi to accept. Whether it was down to her skills of persuasion, the fact that he was missing the theatre, or the conditions of the contract, particularly of a large fee that would help fund the major alterations at his Sant’Agata estate, Verdi eventually agreed.
After some haggling about a suitable subject, Verdi settled on the Spanish romantic drama Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino
by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. Verdi asked his long-time collaborator Piave to provide the libretto. As usual the composer drew up the synopsis for his librettist to versify. It is sometimes said that the story is too rambling and full of improbabilities. That may be so, but it certainly inspired Verdi to compose some of his most wonderful melodies and to fully characterise the roles in his music.
The dark core of Rivas’s drama involves scenes set among the common people including a gypsy fortune-teller. Verdi lightens the dark plot, with its multiple deaths somewhat further than the play. To do so he uses a scene from Schiller’s Wallenstein Lager
involving a panorama of life in a military encampment including “soldiers, vivandieres, gypsies and a monk who preaches in the funniest and most delightful manner in the world”. The monk becomes Melitone in the opera and is often seen as a precursor to the eponymous comic role in his great final opera, Falstaff
. What La forza del destino
does demand are a full-toned cast; it is no opera for upstart lyric voices. This is best illustrated by the fact that when Verdi and his wife made the long journey to St. Petersburg for the premiere in December 1861 and found the soprano contracted for the role of Leonora to be ill it was not possible to find a substitute singer from the company roster. The whole production was postponed for one year. When the opera was eventually premiered on 10 November 1862 it was a success with the Tsar attending, inviting the Verdis to his box and later investing him with the highest state honours.
Verdi, however, was not wholly happy about the ending of the opera - all those depressing multiple deaths in the final scene. Aware of its vocal challenges, he also withheld the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. He had 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. The Paris Opéra offered the opportunity of staging the work with the addition of a ballet, an offer that he declined considering it would make the evening far too long. Verdi eventually got round to a revision when his publisher, Ricordi, proposed performances at La Scala. The revised La Forza,
the version performed in this recording,
was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The premiere also marked a rapprochement
between Verdi and the theatre; the composer had previously forbidden any of his operas being premiered there since his seventh, Giovanni D’Arco
The alterations of the score of La Forza del Destino
from the original 1862 version are significant rather than major. They involve the substitution of the prelude by a full overture, which nowadays is often played as a concert piece and a major revision of the end of act three including the removal of the demanding tenor double aria. The whole final scene is amended by which the triple deaths are avoided, being replaced by the Father Guardian’s benediction as Leonora dies and Alvaro is left alive.
This recording comes in at number 22 in the Tutto Verdi
(All Verdi) series of opera recordings largely derived from the Verdi Festival in Parma. There are twenty-six in the series whilst there are twenty-eight titles in the composer’s operatic oeuvre. The series ignores the musically significant rewrites of both I Lombardi
, of Jérusalem
respectively. The series also ignores the fact that two works that are included, Les Vêpres Siciliennes
and Don Carlos
, were written to French librettos and are given in Italian translation.
In respect of this opera, the introduction states that it comes in at number eleven in terms of performances of Verdi’s operas and number sixty-four for all operas. I have to note that its production challenges and vocal demands are such that in nearly sixty years of opera-going I have only ever managed to see three staged performances, and one concert performance of the original version (see review
). Each of those performances involved significant travel from my base near Manchester, claimed to be the UK’s second city, albeit a claim Birmingham might dispute.
The work’s detractors, and even some Verdi addicts, often describe the plot of La forza del destino
as a somewhat rambling and disconnected series of improbabilities. It may be so, although I personally find that a good production in cohesive sets and with period costume lets the grim story, deliberately leavened by Verdi, shine through. Such circumstances provide a fitting setting for some of Verdi’s most melodic music for soloists and chorus. On that basis alone the work deserves more exposure than it gets. This production, obviously mounted on a restricted budget, does not meet those basic requirements. The simple sets of mainly vertical flats, moved around to give different perspectives for the different scenes are only distinctive in the second scene of act two when Leonora arrives to seek refuge at the monastery. Here the lighting and the shaping of a cross are distinctive and memorably characterful. Elsewhere projected images are used to some effect.
The costumes are a mish-mash. I can hardly conceive that Leonora, supposedly prepared for elopement with Alvaro in the opening scene, would be dressed in an off-the-shoulder gown. Add that her overly capacious bosom is so uplifted as to make me doubt the veracity of my studies of Newton’s laws of gravity. The whole thing got off to a bad start. The fact that Preziosilla is similarly gowned, and endowed, in act two scene one at the inn, and where the assembled men are all wearing top hats, makes me wonder if Stefano Poda had some concept in mind. If so it did not reach me. Likewise Trabucco is rather well dressed to sleep with mules whilst the supposed student staying at the inn, Leonora’s brother, in disguise as a student, would have been better with his sparse hair covered. In act three where the soldiers are engaged in battle and duel, the costumes are in period and better for it.
As Leonora Dimitra Theodossiou is distinctly variable vocally whilst trying, via her acting, to give dramatic meaning to what she is singing, albeit with a little too much waving of arms. Vocally she is wayward in Son Giunta
(DVD 1 CH.17) as Leonora arrives at the monastery. She makes a much better impression in the last act with a well shaped Pace! Pace!
(DVD 2 CH.26). As the vivandier Preziosilla, Mariana Pentcheva is vocally rather throaty but acts well as does the rather dry-toned, but musically accurate and vocally well characterised Don Carlo of Vladimir Stoyanov. As Don Alvaro Aquiles Machado is underpowered for the role that Verdi softened for the 1869 version. He does not have the required weight of tone and his efforts too often resemble shouting. He seems to have fallen between the stools of insufficient honey in the voice for the likes of Nemorino at Macerata in 2002 (see review
) and missing the heft and tonal depth required for heavier roles. This is also evident in his Carlo in the 2012 performance of I Masnadieri
in this series (see review
). As Padre Giordano Roberto Scandiuzzi lacks sufficient tonal depth and histrionic ability to dominate the last scene and in his dealings with Carlo Lepore’s outstanding portrayal of Melitone.
On the rostrum Gianluigi Gelmetti is routine and uninspired by the melodic inspiration Verdi pours into the score. The chorus are, as in all these Tutto Verdi
recordings from Parma, outstanding, particularly in act two scene two as Leonora is accepted for refuge.
While not perfect, the 2007 recording on Arthaus from the Teatro Communale, Florence, conducted by Mehta (see review
) still leads the field in modern performances and recordings. It is included in Volume 3 of Arthaus Musik’s Verdi Opera Selection
(to be reviewed) together with recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera
and La Traviata
at bargain price.
Robert J Farr
Not perfect. Out-pointed by Mehta’s Florence version.
See also review of Blu-ray release by Dave Billinge