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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino – melodramma in four acts (1862, revised 1869 version)
Marquis of Calatrava - Alastair Miles (bass); Donna Leonora - Nina Stemme (soprano); Curra - Elisabeta Marin (soprano); Don Alvaro - Salvatore Licitra (tenor); Don Carlo di Vargas - Carlos Įlvarez (baritone); Preziosilla - Nadia Krasteva (mezzo); Fra Melitone - Tiziano Bracci (bass); Guardiano - Alastair Miles (bass); Mastro Trabuco - Michael Roider (tenor); Un alcalde - Dan Paul Dumetrescu (tenor); Un chirurgo - Clemens Unterreiner (tenor)
Wiener Staatsballett,
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, / Zubin Mehta
Chorus master: Thomas Lang
Director: David Pountney
Set and Costume design: Richard Hudson
Lighting design: Fabrice Kebour
Video direction: Karina Fibich
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1st March 2008
Sound formats: a) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0ch, 48kHz; b) Stereo LPCM 2.0ch 48kHz/16 bit
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9 – Filmed in High Definition from an HD source
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean
C MAJOR Blu-Ray 751104 [161 mins]

This Wiener Staatsoper performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino directed by David Pountney from 2008 is a reissue on C Major originally released in 2012. It’s a notable performance of Verdi’s flawed masterpiece and deserves the attention. As coincidence would have it, only three weeks ago I attended Keith Warner’s impressive staging of La forza del destino at Semperoper Dresden. Incidentally I notice that ranks La forza del destino as seventy-first in terms of productions on the international stage and Verdi’s twelfth most staged opera.

Certainly, one of Verdi’s most enigmatic and ambitious operas La forza del destino is an epic melodrama in four acts, pronounced as being of near Shakespearean proportions. A tale of obsession, retribution and tragedy, Peter Conrad has described La forza del destino as Verdi’s ‘War and Peace’. Premičred in 1862, and subsequently heavily revised, the opera employs an enormous canvas and Verdi, who wasn’t yet fifty, created some of his most lyrical music of considerable richness. Keeping track of the action is certainly not easy as it moves from Seville to a forest near Rome while the main characters use assumed names, disguises and even vanish from complete acts. The protagonists are driven by forces mainly out of their control which shape their destiny, together with extraordinary coincidences and a psychotic desire for vengeance. Commencing in mid-eighteenth-century Seville, the heroine, the beautiful Donna Leonora, plans to elope with Don Alvaro, of royal Inca descent. Leonora’s father is fatally shot by a stray bullet from Alvaro’s pistol which sets in train an unpreventable chain of events. Each forced to flee, taking different lifepaths; both Alvaro and Leonora are hunted by her brother, Don Carlo, who is set on avenging his father.
Despite the severe challenges of the opera David Pountney pulls together this ‘sprawling’ drama reasonably well and concentrates on providing plenty of theatrical effects often reminiscent of Broadway musicals. It’s as if Pountney has decided to contrast starkly serious life-changing events with the comic aspects he sees in the score. Pountney and his set designer Richard Hudson endeavour to portray the theme of war and violence often projected on a semi-transparent scrim in front of the stage, with WW2 battle scenes, often blood-splattered. At the start, whilst the overture is being played, the audience see a video projection of a wheel that begins to turn after a butterfly lands on it, which is all rather distracting. For most of the opera Hudson’s set is dominated by what looks like a giant white, right angle bracket slightly elevated at around 10 degrees to allow the audience a better view and there’s a door in the back panel. Later, white panels are added either side to form a crucifix shape and then some elevated, rickety looking walkways are constructed using the bracket as their foundation. Overall Hudson’s costumes are a mishmash of period and contemporary styles. A red, white and black theme predominates notably the women dancers dressed as cowgirls with cowboy hats, red and white check shirts, skimpy red shorts and cowboy boots; then there are red skirt suits and berets and black boots for the women soldiers. Persistently displayed are the white crucifixes on Bibles and on clothes juxtaposed with symbols of guns and swords no doubt representing violence. Another stark reminder of death is dummies of corpses hanging from the ceiling.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is the determined marquis’s daughter Leonora, who puts body and soul into the part. I know Stemme more for her challenging Wagner, Richard Strauss and Puccini roles nevertheless her dramatic soprano copes well with the role, demonstrating her ability to traverse Leonore’s wide range of emotions. Singing with power and clarity Stemme conveys substantial passion in the dramatic passages, although ideally, I wanted additional warmth at times and some strain is evident. Her acting however is never less than convincing. Swiss-born and Italian-bred tenor Salvatore Licitra is Leonora’s lover Don Alvaro, an outsider of noble birth and Incan heritage. Licitra isn’t a singer I have come across too often and here he gives an acceptable, if understated, performance with a tendency to flatness. Aged only forty-three Salvatore Licitra’s career was tragically ended by a motor-scooter accident in 2011. Making a substantial impression as the young fortune telling, raven-haired, gypsy girl Preziosilla is Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva. Dressed outrageously as a pistol-oting, mini-skirted cow-girl in decorated cowboy boots the delightfully flirtatious and fun-loving Krasteva shines brightly with a performance of suitably outsized personality. Krasteva has a ripe, mezzo-soprano that projects splendidly and is endowed with a natural and considerable stage presence, as demonstrated in Preziosilla’s spectacular Rataplan chorus. Standing out from the pack, Carlos Įlvarez is eminently suited to the role of Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas. With long black hair and bearded, dressed mainly in a dark greatcoat and at other times in red army trousers and cap, Įlvarez makes a chilling Carlo who is all-consumed with anger, thirsting for vengeance. Quite simply the Spanish baritone sings magnificently, giving a full-blooded performance of real passion. Bass Alastair Miles doubles as the Marquis of Calatrava and Father Superior Guardiano and copes reasonably well with the challenge.

Zubin Mehta conducts Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper firmly with assurance, and they respond with playing that brings out the significant drama in the score. Trained by Thomas Lang I can’t fault Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, who display remarkable unity and power when needed. Impressive, too, is the dancing from Wiener Staatsballett, particularly the enjoyable cowboys and cowgirls routine so splendidly choreographed by Beate Vollack. In the booklet there is an essay ‘A Journey of Love and Revenge’ by Kenneth Chalmers which covers only limited ground. However, my major grumble is the lack of explanation or detail concerning the various cuts and reorderings in the score adopted in this David Pountney production. Karina Fibich’s video direction is satisfying, employing a range of excellent camera work, including close ups (rarely encountered these days on video) and shots of the orchestra pit and audience which add to the live atmosphere. No problems at all with the recorded sound the usual choice of Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio.

I am extremely fond of Verdi’s magnificent, if flawed masterpiece, widely acknowledged as being difficult to stage. Like all the productions I know of La forza del destino David Pountney’s Wiener Staastsoper staging has plenty of faults and implausible situations but it’s certainly creative, high on entertainment and generates plenty of drama.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Roy Westbrook ~ Robert Farr (DVD)


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