Lady in a cage

Sometimes it seems as though DVDs are released just for the sake of filling a hole in the catalogue. Considering the lack of anything truly distinctive in this 2007 production of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, that would certainly seem to be the case here. (If anyone is wondering, the hole in the catalogue I am referring to is a modern HD version of the standard 1869 Forza with a recognizable cast.) 

The production, by Nicholas Joel, is traditional in setting and old-fashioned in staging, meaning that the acting is generalized and blocking chiefly concerned with making sure the singers are front and center, always able to stare straight at the conductor. That’s not to imply though that this opera necessarily suffers terribly by this treatment. The only oddity is the three-sided cage which is meant to be Leonora’s hermitage in the final act.  I suppose this liberty was taken for symbolic value, but any notion of that is dispelled when Carlo walks around one of the sides to stab her (defying Verdi’s stage directions) while Alvaro is inexplicably unable to find his way in.

As Leonora di Vargas, Violeta Urmana turns in an impressive performance that shows off the dramatic power of her voice, emotional commitment, and clear diction.  A tall, statuesque woman, it is a pity she is not costumed more flatteringly, but nonetheless she has a dignified and noble presence. Her tone, though not unlovely, is unvarying and often constricted. But more crucially her singing lacks the transcendent, spiritual quality of great Leonoras such as Renata Tebaldi and Maria Caniglia, which elevates this opera above its ludicrous plot.

Thus, much of the monastery scene with its glorious soaring lines remains earthbound. That is not to say this is an inadequate performance; it is simply not a great one. For all the muscle and metal in her voice, Urmana can sing with affecting vulnerability and lovely floated pianissimo, and is especially moving during “La vergine degli angeli” and “Pace, pace mio dio”. She is also not afraid to dig into her chest voice, which she uses to good effect in Act 1.

Marcello Giordani, singing his first Don Alvaro, begins the opera looking and sounding uncomfortable in the part, cutting off notes and rushing lines, but settles in as it progresses.  As is often the case with him, his acting is generic and singing inconsistent, with high notes varying from trumpeting to whiny.  Nevertheless, he sings with fervor and style, and tenors suited to the Italian spinto repertoire aren’t exactly growing on trees.

The quality of the cast deteriorates after that, starting with Carlo Guelfi‘s Don Carlo di Vargas.  Guelfi’s voice is not the most reliable or distinctive, but it gets the job done. It is appropriately dark, but often dry and wobbly.  As the solemn Padre Guardiano, Roberto Scandiuzzi can be a trial to listen to because despite having an attractive lower register, the voice spreads obtrusively from the lower-middle upwards.  Likewise, Julia Gertseva’s spunky Preziosilla suffers from a pronounced wobble and is challenged at the top.

Unfortunately, the serviceable, bland conducting of Zubin Mehta does not do much to make up for the overall weak cast.  He tends to be metronomic and mechanical, resulting in a generic, square interpretation that lacks the brooding urgency and tension that should pervade the opera.

For lovers of this haunting yet problematic opera, is this DVD a necessary addition to your collection? Considering that it features a solid Leonora among a second-rate cast in a production that is unlikely to offend (or excite) anyone, it is merely a satisfactory stop-gap until a more ideal version is released.