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.