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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) La Forza del Destino (revised 1869 version)
Leonora – Anja Harteros (sop)
Don Alvaro – Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Don Carlo – Ludovic Tézier (bar)
Il Marchese di Calatrave/Padre Guardiano – Vitalij Kowaljow (bass)
Fra Melitone – Renato Girolami (bar)
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva (mezzo)
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Asher Fisch
Martin Kušej (stage director)
Recorded live during the Munich Opera Festival 2014
Picture Format 16:9; PCM Stereo & DTS 5.1; Region Code 0 SONY CLASSICAL 88875160649 [2 DVDs: 178 mins]
This production of Forza was one of the international highlights of the 2013-14 operatic calendar. I even went to Munich to see it in July 2014, during the annual Munich Opera Festival, during which this DVD was filmed. Worse luck, Jonas Kaufmann cancelled, and I never got to see it as it was intended, but this DVD helps me grasp what I was missing.
Director Martin Kušej is best known to British opera audiences for his controversial (and boo-inducing) Idomeneo at Covent Garden in 2014. His approach to Forza is a little fussy, but really no more daft than the opera’s own sprawling plot, which throws dramatic unity to the winds. Kušej tries to move from the specifics of Leonora and Alvaro’s tragedy to a more general meditation on war and its effects on humanity. He references 9/11 in the tavern scene, the army camp of Act 3 resembles Abu Ghraib, and the crowd seeking charity at the monastery resembles a crowd of stateless refugees. It takes a little time to bed in, but once you’re used to it, it’s actually not at all bad, and it’s dashed impressive the way he manages to create an aerial view of the prison at the start of Act 3. He also manages to get top notch performances out of his principals. The overture is staged with a (clearly very fraught) evening dinner in the Calatrava household, with a young Don Carlo and Fra Melitone in attendance, presumably as the family chaplain. It’s clear even from this scene that this is a tense family environment, and the patriarchal element of control might explain why Leonora finds it so difficult to elope in the first scene. Kaufmann’s Alvaro begins the opera as a hedonistic, alcoholic hipster, but is steadily humbled as the evening progresses, and the final scene brings his utter devastation, not his repentance. Leonora is portrayed with great sympathy, even if her “disguise” of a fedora hat would fool nobody, and I found the second scene of Act 2, which sees her (or, at least, a body double) being baptised as an initiation into the monks’ way of life, strangely powerful.
The reason why this production provoked so much excitement, however, and the best reason for picking up this DVD, is that Munich had managed to assemble the finest Verdi cast available to sing the opera. It is crowned by a magnificent Leonora from Anja Harteros, perhaps the best thing she has done on disc. Her rich, creamy tone makes her just about perfect for Verdi’s great lyric roles. Her voice has the technique to conquer the tessitura and the size to make it sound effortless, filling the role like the wind filling sails. You get that right from the first scene, with the touch of luxury to Me, pellegrina ed orfana, and she is devastating in the great prayer that precedes her scene with Padre Guardiano. She is then transcendently beautiful in the great La Vergine degli angeli, and she crowns the whole thing with as secure a performance of Pace, mio Dio as you’ll hear anywhere. Just listen to the effortless octave leap on Invan la pace! Her ensembles are every bit as good, singing with (all too brief) gay abandon in her Act 1 duet with Alvaro, before finding energetic urgency as she pleads with Guardiano to be allowed to live as a hermit. Make no mistake: this is one of the finest Leonoras you’ll find anywhere on disc, and in Jonas Kaufmann she is matched with an Alvaro who is the finest we’ve had since Domingo. His macho image suits Alvaro’s swaggering very well indeed, and his dark, burnished voice only deepens the character’s tragedy. His technique is pretty peerless, too, managing his trademark pianissimo control to a heavenly degree in O tu che in seno agli angeli. His duets with Don Carlo are electrifying, not least because Ludovic Tézier has grown into one of the best Verdi baritones of the 21st century so far. There is depth and purity in his voice that leaves others in the shade, and he is one of the few who could stand comparison with Sherill Milnes in this role. Listen to the way he dominates the third act to hear how Tézier manages to combine vocal beauty with a sense of this character’s implacable, baleful obsession with honour.
The lesser roles are every bit as fine. Vitalij Kowaljow sings both the father and the abbot, though it’s not clear whether this is part of Kušej’s take on the story or whether it’s just a sensible use of a good bass. Either way, he sings Verdi’s roles with a beautiful sense of the bel canto line, and he is also an incredibly watchable screen presence. Renato Girolami sings Melitone very well, and he refuses to ham up the character’s comedy, something which can be the death of many a Forza. Nadia Krasteva has an impressively forthright mezzo voice, and she brings great life to Preziosilla’s music, even though it’s not at all clear what she’s doing in any of Kušej’s scenes. The chorus sing like gods, and the orchestra play out of their skins for Asher Fisch, who keeps the whole thing going without a hint of sagging. The recorded sound is fantastic in surround, and the picture is crystal clear, without any bizarre camera angles or fussy direction.
I love the more conventionally staged Forza from Florence with Zubin Mehta (review), and arch-traditionalists will still prefer that one to this, but for anyone who isn’t entirely allergic to be a bit of Regietheater, this is now the one to go for. The production is perfectly fine and, more importantly, it’s the best sounding Forza we’ve had since Levine and Sinopoli on CD. Unfortunately, there are no extra features.