Cher Public

Cross purposes

forza_amazon“Has anyone ever seen a truly great production of this opera?” asked Parterre’s Jungfer Marianne Leizmetzerin last November, in the course of sharing audio from an excellent 1974 Vienna Forza del destino. Marianne received few nominations in follow-up comments. When we talk of great Traviatas and great Falstaffs, it is likely we mean the direction and design teams contributed to the greatness. When we talk of great Forzas, we usually mean they did not get in the way. There was great singing, perhaps great conducting, and what was framing the musical performance was not ruinously bad. 

Often we are not even that lucky. The Metropolitan Opera’s 1996 production, a “spiritless black hole” (per Joseph Volpe, on whose watch it came into existence), received only one revival ten years later. I have seen nothing worse on that stage than the telecast from the premiere run.

A 2007 production from Florence had even less going for it, and was a candidate for the worst opera DVD I have seen with artists of international reputation. The Vienna State Opera’s former intendant named a 2008 production (also filmed) as the worst failure of his tenure. When Forza is bad, especially when a poor staging is supported by lackluster singing, it is a trial.

Without doubt, challenges are built into the material. Several years ago, I read an exchange in which an esteemed director was complimented on his then-new production of Ballo in Maschera, which the person giving the compliment supposed was a difficult opera to stage effectively.

The director replied, more or less, “What makes you think Ballo is difficult to direct? Now, Forza… that’s difficult.” The job of both conductor and director is to respect Forza‘s audacious design, its shifts in tone and hue from high drama to low comedy, while unifying these seemingly disparate elements into a rich human tapestry.

This is easier said than done, but mid-20th-century mutilations that attempted to “focus” Forza by removing scenes and shrinking roles were not the answer. Forza has as much in common with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which premiered several years later in the same city, as it does with Rigoletto.

Verdi and Piave did not set out to create a taut, homogeneous vengeance drama about three people, failing because of shared attention deficit. For all the growing pains it evidences, Forza is one of Verdi’s most ambitious and original works. If it does not sprawl, it is not Forza; it is some other, more commonplace thing.

Charges of unevenness are at once accurate and beside the point. Even music most often excised and/or criticized prefigures triumphs to come. The remarkable duet “Sleale! Il segreto,” once a standard cut, points toward the most innovative duets in Don Carlos and Otello. In Melitone’s fourth-act scene, there are hints of Falstaff.

The 2013 Bayerische Staatsoper production, new to DVD, is among German director Martin Kusej‘s most sober and restrained work. Several of Kusej’s prior productions have balanced bold transgression and wit. Recall emperor Tito as a bloodthirsty lunatic whose acts of clemency were exceptions to the rule; Klytämnestra and Aegisth as hosts of orgies; Rusalka as incest victim confined to her father’s basement, Jezibaba’s “magic” consisting of tarting her up and getting her drunk.

Kusej cannot be said to direct Forza with a light hand or to do much a conservative would recognize as traditional, but he sticks to the plot and takes the drama seriously. He does so while locating Forza in a recognizable modern world, one where people have grown bitter, and cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.

The staging of the overture serves early notice of the production’s strength (detailed Personenregie) and weakness (directorial micromanagement). We are in the posh home of a modern-day crime kingpin for a tense, silent family dinner. French doors are open upstage; a breeze rustles sheer curtains.

At either end of the table are the authority figures, the Marchese and the family priest. Between them, Leonora and her co-conspirator in the elopement, Curra (who, in this staging, does not dress or behave like a servant), keep exchanging furtive glances. Curra reaches over a few times to touch Leonora’s arm reassuringly. Leonora nervously tears her bread and forces smiles.

The Marchese stares with suspicion at his daughter. A security goon with earpiece enters to whisper something to the boss, and we can surmise it is a report on the movements of Don Alvaro. The other figure at the table is a small, bespectacled boy, much younger than Leonora—by process of elimination, lil’ Carlo.

This is all interesting to watch for a while, and incidents at the table are nicely timed to the music, but Verdi has written a considerable overture to fill out. The viewer may start zoning out, thinking about these singers having to perform this meticulous dumb-show night after night. They act it well, but they can only do so much to keep stasis and repetition from wearing thin. Eventually, the Marchese sends lil’ Carlo off to bed in the company of the priest (make your own joke).

The first act begins. We hear what Verdi imagined would be appropriate music, orchestral and vocal, to introduce two characters and establish their personalities. Of course, by now we have had the personalities of the Marchese and Leonora established for nearly ten minutes, so it is made to sound redundant.

Leonora’s first solo (“Me pellegrina”) is ostensibly addressed to Curra, who swills wine and rolls her eyes, as if these are young-person dramatics of which she had had her fill before the opera began. But the aria is directed and acted, appropriately, as a reverie; the listener onstage is irrelevant. No less than the two later Leonora arias, which are not directed to another character, this one seems an anguished private monologue.

Don Alvaro’s dress and manner at his first entrance violate this upscale setting. With long locks, jeans, and a blazer with sleeves pushed up to the elbows, he resembles a coke dealer from 1993, and he is pushy and excitable. Kusej’s direction of the important Leonora/Alvaro scene (their only one until the end of the opera) is very good.

When Leonora hesitates and asks to delay the elopement until tomorrow, Alvaro turns his back to her for “Eleonora! Io sol saprò soffirire.” In agreeing to release Leonora from her vow, he is manipulating her, and he secretly gloats when she capitulates. He cannot see that she is smiling, recognizing the manipulation. Even these lovers are engaged in a battle.

Following the Marchese’s accidental shooting, lil’ Carlo reenters to attend to his dying father, but now he is played by an older boy sprouting facial hair. By the next scene, some years into his pursuit of vengeance, he has become a fortysomething baritone, but he wears the same green sweater and Buddy Holly specs.

The “inn,” some sort of relief area, retains elements of the previous scene: the dinner table (which will keep returning in other settings) and the Marchese’s undisturbed dead body (which will not). Curra’s chic outfit reappears on Preziosilla. Troubled-looking civilians drink bottled water and mill around in the aftermath of a military disaster, and Preziosilla exhorts them to a jingoistic response.

Reinhard Traub‘s lighting, a plus throughout, is at its most impressive in spotlighting the disguised heroine in “Padre Eterno Signor.” There is one miscalculation in this scene: when Carlo suggests the others join him in playing a trick on the stranger of indeterminate gender (Leonora, of course), Kusej has Carlo get close enough to his quarry to lay hands on her. Carlo’s failure to unmask and apprehend his sister strains credulity even in this less than fully realistic staging.

Director and singers together make a high point of the Leonora/Guardiano scene, one which proves Kusej would have done fine work throughout his career even if he had been forced to work along traditional lines.

The same singer who had portrayed the Marchese returns as Guardiano, underlining what was obvious anyway (Leonora has found a substitute father), and Guardiano and Melitone are priests rather than monks, but the actual direction is both straightforward and extremely moving. This Leonora is physically and emotionally exhausted, teetering on the point of fainting, but in the duet’s cabaletta she finds something like ecstasy in her deliverance. Every movement or expression is responsive to the music’s developments.

Set designer Martin Zehetgruber‘s coup for the third act is an overhead view of a military base’s interior. Prisoners are dragged and humiliated in images quoting Abu Ghraib; prostitutes ply their trade in the soldiers’ downtime. Long minutes tick by with supernumeraries frozen in punishing midair sexual poses, and once again the viewer may begin to wonder if it was more trouble than it was worth.

But again, Kusej is pertinent and insightful in his direction, this time for Alvaro’s “O tu che in seno agli Angeli” and what follows. The aria is an outpouring of suicidal depression, and Alvaro concludes it with gun at head. Carlo’s peril and the new friendship that follows his rescue pull Alvaro back from the brink.

This, we realize, is Alvaro’s equivalent of Leonora’s scene with Guardiano. These two desperate people, separated from each other, wander bleak landscapes and are buoyed by new human connections they form.

Preziosilla at her reappearance has traded her classy “recruiting” outfit for something more provocative, skimpy denim shorts and a halter top. In this scene Kusej can indulge his penchant for debauchery. There are many semi-clothed supers, one pulled by Preziosilla on a leash.

Oddly, although the same baritone sings Melitone’s music throughout, we are not meant to take the censoring priest of this scene as Melitone. Here, but not before or after, the singer has facial hair and a long gray wig. As ever, crowd management is not one of Kusej’s great strengths; he is better with one-on-one interactions.

As Preziosilla sings the “Rataplan,” choristers and supers simulate a mass grave. On her way out, this warmongering whore looks back, haunted (I believe) at what she has helped bring about. The bodies remain onstage for “Sleale! Il segreto.”

When Carlo catches up to Alvaro in the final act, there is a near-embrace at “Ti trovo, ah, ti trovo finalmente.” For a second, it seems a happy reunion will take place, but then Carlo has his hands about Alvaro’s throat. The illogic and volatility of the men’s relationship are well caught.

When Alvaro finally is pushed to the point of fighting, he grabs a weapon, gets a running start, and slides down the length of that omnipresent table, coming to a stop with blade to Carlo’s throat. Carlo’s repetition of “Finalmente!” as blocked here means something different and even darker, perhaps, than what is traditionally understood. By now, to Carlo, this duel is less about “winning” than closure. To die or to kill does not matter; only a death is required.

Leonora’s hermitage is represented by a pile of white crosses under which she hides at the sound of intruders. In her solitude, she again nervously tears bread. The production takes its full-circle concept a step further for the final movement.

Guardiano is seated at the head of the table; Carlo and Leonora, dead or dying of their wounds, occupy their overture positions to his left. This Alvaro can take no comfort in Guardiano’s spiritual bromides. He exits stage right following the trio, tossing a crucifix to the floor.

The major excisions in this substantially complete 1869-edition Forza are the atmospheric dawn patrol episode (a great loss) and parts of the camp scene with Trabuco and Preziosilla. The final two scenes of Act Three are reversed, with Preziosilla’s “Rataplan” leading to the tenor/baritone scene following Alvaro’s recovery.

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester makes a brawny sound in ensembles that gives way to some exceptionally good solo work, including lovely solo clarinet playing hovering around Alvaro’s aria. Both the orchestra and the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper are flatteringly recorded. “Il cielo fulmini, incenerisca” has rattling, unnerving impact.

The leadership of these impressive forces by Asher Fisch, alas, is not distinguished. He lacks vigor in tempo and attack, and the performances of his leading men suffer most for it. Jonas Kaufmann is given all too much rope with which to fuss, prettify, and prioritize affectation over line, and he and Fisch have opposing rhythmic ideas a few times.

Ludovic Tézier more than once sounds as though he would be grateful if the pace picked up. With Fisch’s dilatory maneuvering, every effort of tonal reinforcement on the baritone’s part has a blinking arrow pointing at it. There is nothing jaunty about the softly contoured “Son Pereda,” which pokes along.

Both singers are in solid enough shape to conquer reservations. Kaufmann is in good voice, and his intensity and magnetism in musical and stage responsibilities count for much, especially in duets. Tézier, whose malevolence at first seems of a milder, more sardonic nature than this blood-and-thunder avenger needs, warms to his assignment and is a worthy antagonist.

He sings Carlo’s music as written, eschewing interpolated high notes, and does so with some elegance and finish. His energy flags only in the cabaletta “Ah! Egli è salvo,” where he sounds as though sustaining the aria at a leisurely pace took a lot out of him. He may have been grateful for the break following.

There are more exciting basses around than Vitalij Kowaljow, but his talents are well used here. Much of Guardiano’s music falls in the sweet spot of his range, and neither the role nor the staging requires him to be a dynamic figure. He partners effectively with his Melitone, and beautifully with his Leonora.

Renato Girolami, doubling Melitone and the mute family priest of the first act, handles the former’s music and comedic shtick with assurance if without the panache and charm that can make a star turn of it.

The most severe accounting would find Nadia Krasteva‘s Preziosilla a case of too much of something and not enough of something else. Hers is another powerhouse mezzo voice in a part that does not need that and arguably does not benefit from it.

This big, viscous instrument cannot fleetly corner in Preziosilla’s music, and one must listen charitably to certify a trill in what she does against the chorus in “Venite all’indovina.” There are, nevertheless, spirit and personality about this gypsy girl, and the voice has alluring colors. Krasteva overcomes miscasting. Heike Grötzinger‘s tart, seen-it-all Curra leaves a lingering impression.

About Anja Harteros‘s Leonora, I will not mince words: I have heard nothing better from her, certainly not in Italian opera. Perhaps every singer is a litmus test, and you will either find this very inward Leonora a portrayal of exquisite sensitivity and sophistication or you will call it boring and go back to your Zinka broadcasts.

Harteros’s portrayal gripped me from the first scene. The vocal palette she commands is of cooler temperature and narrower gauge than that of the classic models; she lacks the good old Mediterranean warmth and richness and the floated pianissimi. She sounds like a distinguished Strauss soprano singing Verdi with poise and refinement.

That said, I can think of no one else active in 2013 whom I would want to take her place in this production. Harteros does in musical phrasing and in deployment of words what other sopranos have done with sheer sound: she makes this woman’s plight real and affecting.

When, in Act Two, Leonora sings of a feeling of new calm and peace, one hears it in the singing, sees it in her dignified acting. No one else in this very good cast responds so eloquently to Kusej’s direction. Tall and graceful, slender and pretty in a studious way, she even looks like the sort of woman who would pick at a piece of bread for half an hour. Munich was lucky to have her.

So, do we have here that rare great stage production of Forza del destino? The best I can say is that it comes closer than most. It finds a fresh approach to a familiar theme, the costs of senseless longstanding conflicts on both military and personal levels, but it is a cerebral take with cold gusts of pedantry blowing through.

Scenes involving Harteros’s Leonora are obvious emotional high points, but this score and cast cried out for more galvanizing conducting, and the whole show is thoughtful and admirable without being truly stirring. For that quality, DVD performances with classic casts in old-fashioned shows from Naples (1958) and Milan (1978) must suffice. The Munich performance, a “modern” Forza in all ways, is a recommendable adjunct.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Great piece Porgy, thank you. I think it’s possibly the best thing I’ve heard from Harteros and I’m glad you rated her as an actress too -- I think she’s uncommonly subtle and convincing, in the right circumstances.

    You’ve reminded me that I went to see Forza you mention at the Met in 2006 and left at the first interval. Voigt had been very impressive in her first 2 scenes but was sounding exhausted by the time she got through her duet with Padre Guardiano and the scene with the monks. Ramey was very wobbly, Delavan awfully shouty and charmless, and Licitra sadly not having a good night of it. I cut my losses and sloped off to The Cock.

  • grimoaldo

    It was a pleasure to read this review. Although I too had some reservations, watching the webcast, it was tremendously heartening to see and hear a beloved opera performed well when I had given up hope there would ever again be singers capable of the three leading roles. As you say, it was probably the best Forza for nearly forty years.

  • erste bratsche

    I suffered through only Act One of a live Forza at the Vienna Staatsoper in either 1989 or the early 90s. Eva Marton was the Leonora. The sets were just some boxes strewn around the stage and the lighting was so dim I think they were probably able to grow mushrooms on stage. In one of the early ensembles in Act 1, the singers got so far off pitch that they ended a good half step lower than the orchestra. I think I exited rather early in the evening.

    • erste bratsche

      Second part of story: I was back in Vienna a few days later connecting to someplace else and I saw Marton at the same gate. The reviews had already come out and I saw her talking angrily at an itsy-bitsy man and poking him in the chest several times.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I can imagine Marton might have been a trial in the role at that point. There is a complete Forza from the late 70s on YouTube though in which she is a very rewarding Leonora.

  • Lohengrin

    Saw the production four times, twice with Kaufmann, the other two with Todorovich (Kaufmann was ill), but not the recorded performance.
    First: I loved the staging, very intens and intelligent.
    Second: had no problems with Fish, they all were always together perfectly. Yes, there may be an other conducter (perhaps Pappano)showing more from the great Verdi music, but I liked it.
    Singers: Leonora, Alvaro, Don Carlos and Calatrave were simply perfect. Of course, Todorovich is neither a great actor nor a similar good singer as Kaufmann is, but he also convinced me. The staging was “made for Kaumann”, so it workes better with him. Tezier and Kaumann like eachother very much and so it was a great pleasure to see them together. Anja/Leonore perfect singing, but “from an other world” and so she and Alvaro would not have been a happy couple…..
    All in all a very good production, far from “historic” staging.
    Enjoy the DVD/Blueray!

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    I can’t think of a more difficult Verdi opera to stage effectively. I grew up on the old Met production, which was a real cut and paste job. Overture between scene 1 and the convent scene. No inn scene. The middle scenes truncated and rearranged. Still there were some sublime performances. Vocally, I’ll never forget Eileen Farrell as Leonora or Tebaldi in her prime. I look forward to Radvan’s Leonora.

    • Bill

      It was one of Bing’s more “modern” productions done
      for Milanov -- the entire opera was updated some
      two centuries but Forza had been out of the Met’s
      repertoire for a decade and at the time (I think 1952) became popular fare -- And with singers such as
      Milanov, Tebaldi, Farrell, Tucker, del Monaco, Bergonzi, Warren, Merrill, Bastianini, Siepi, Hines, Tozzi later Corelli, Ghiaurov, Milnes and Price one could not go wrong. It was one of those Berman productions (Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Otello) which were
      quite popular with the public at the time for their scenic design, solid sets.

  • PCally

    Excellent review and I agree with pretty much everything, especially the comments about Harteros. I have to say that while she’s too accomplished to be dull, I often find her a somewhat reticent performer which, in roles that are pretty reticent to begin with, often results in a failure to move me. Here she’s completely committed and very moving in what is IMO a confusing character, all the while managing to keep everything internal in a way that’s very interesting to watch.

    I really wish Munich would release more of their productions on DVD and I’m glad this one made it. This is easily the best forza on DVD IMO.

    • Bluebeard

      Totally agree regarding more DVDs from Munich. Their live streams are a treat, and I try to watch them whenever my schedule’s free. Out of all of them, I wish they’d release the David Bösch L’Orfeo with Christian Gerhaher. Even if the overall performance weren’t excellent (which it is), Anna Bonitatibus’s Messenger would make it worth buying the DVD alone:

  • What an elegantly written review, full of wonderful observations about the piece and the production. I loved this paragraph:

    Verdi and Piave did not set out to create a taut, homogeneous vengeance drama about three people, failing because of shared attention deficit. For all the growing pains it evidences, Forza is one of Verdi’s most ambitious and original works. If it does not sprawl, it is not Forza; it is some other, more commonplace thing.

  • Krunoslav

    “That said, I can think of no one else active in 2013 whom I would want to take her place in this production.”

    http://tinyurl.com/zb9b3a5

  • Krunoslav

    “That said, I can think of no one else active in 2013 whom I would want to take her place in this production.”

  • Niel Rishoi

    Excellent review of one of my favorite Verdi operas. I am extremely partial to the 1955 Decca recording -- all great Verdians in their primes.

  • Porgy Amor

    Aw, thanks, Niel (and all others).

    This opera, I think, has done better in the recording studio postwar than it has on stage, at least when cameras have been present. Besides the Decca that Niel mentions, the two RCA sets with L. Price are other favorites of mine, especially the 1976, one of Levine’s best recordings. The EMI entries conducted by Gardelli and Muti have a lot going for them too. The Muti is not well recorded, but he is one of the master conductors of this glorious mess.

    This review will likely be my last Parterre piece for a while, and the rotation of recent times, including Niel, Christopher C., Patrick M., Ali, Greg, Ivy, Alex B., Henson, and others, set a high standard that I had both the pleasure and the challenge of trying to meet. I’m a fan as much as a colleague of all of them.

    • Krunoslav

      Let’s not forget during-War:

      http://www.amazon.com/Verdi-Forza-Del-Destino-Stignani/dp/B007VA1ZQ0

      The person I find less than ideal in the 1955 Decca set is MdM, loud and inflexible as Alvaro. As others have said, he is better in his live recordings than in most studio efforts. Give me Bergonzi any day.

    • armerjacquino

      There is some truly fantastic singing on the Gardelli recording, even if it’s not dramatically the most riveting rendition. The Muti is ruled out for me by Freni. I’m not one of the people who says she should never have gone near her heavier, late-career repertoty, but there’s no hiding the fact that Leonora was not her part.

      I’m bored saying it now, but I don’t understand why the Sinopoli recording is so dismissed. There’s some terrific playing and conducting and the women are well worth hearing, as are Bruson and Burchuladze. Carreras is out of his depth, but not as much as Freni is elsewhere.

      I would have loved a studio-only recording with Ricciarelli in around 1982.

      • PCally

        I was listening to Sinopoli for the first time recently and I had a pretty mixed response. I’m a fan of the conducting (I’m a fan in general) and I like Bruson. But Plowright, despite a basically lovely sound and some lovely phrasing, sounds a bit stretched to me (I personally think overall she’s finer than Freni though) and by the late 1980’s Baltsa’s voice was coming apart. The security is there but the lushness from earlier is now somewhat raspy and throaty and she chests all the lower stuff. And while Freni is out of her depth, she clearly has a solid enough technique and is smart enough to never push and yell the way Carreras does (and the way Ricciarelli probably would have had she sung the role).

        Price #1 is a personal favorite. People are very critical of Price but that recording has so mannerisms whatsoever and the voice is at it’s peak. The whole cast is fantastic and the conducting is solid. The Tebaldi, Del Monaco live recording is also sublime and Callas is worth of listen even if I don’t really care for her co-stars.

        • armerjacquino

          “and the way Ricciarelli probably would have had she sung the role”

          Unfair, I think. In her prime, she didn’t ‘push and yell’ in the TROV Leonora, or the BALLO Amelia (a role of very comparable weight). And of course ‘Vergine degli Angeli’ and the final trio could hardly have suited her better.

          • PCally

            To each his own I guess. I’ve never heard the Trovatore but she certainly sounds stressed as Amelia for Abbado despite some lovely singing in quieter moments. And the Trovatore roles in lighter than either of the other two roles so a lyric approach is much easier. Even in it’s prime I always felt that the voice spread above the staff and IMO rather than simply singing with her own voice she put undue pressure on it and beefed it up in order to match what she thought was the weight of the roles. I’m not Freni’s biggest fan but she never pushed her voice, even in her lesser things like the Aida and Forza. She always sang with her own voice for better or worse. Everything about Ricciarelli in spinto roles sounded manufactured and tentative to me.

  • Porgy Amor

    I’m not Freni’s biggest fan but she never pushed her voice, even in her lesser things like the Aida and Forza. She always sang with her own voice for better or worse.

    That’s why she came out the other side of all those risky assignments still sounding more or less like herself, instead of combusting. There was some wear in the later performances and recordings (I’ll define “later” as the Levine/DG Eugene Onegin and anything after), but probably no more than there would have been if she had kept singing Mimis, Marguerites, and Micaëlas for 35 years. She looked after her career and her voice with some intelligence, more than have some other divas in demand.

    I do find points in her favor on the Forza. She’s stylish and expressive, and the Guardiano scene gets a good reading. But there is something to AJ’s comment that it really wasn’t her role.

    • armerjacquino

      I’d agree with everything you say, with a slight caveat about ‘sounding more or less like herself’. The 60s and early 70s Freni was capable of making sounds of heartstopping beauty which you don’t ever really hear from the 80s onwards. She’s such a good singer technically and stylistically, and nothing ever fazes her but she did sacrifice a certain amount of bloom in taking on heavier rep- although as you also say that could have happened anyway.