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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino - Melodramma in four acts (1869 revision)
Marquis of Calatrava, Leonora’s father – Duccio Dal Monte (bass); Donna Leonora, his daughter - Violeta Urmana (soprano); Curra, her chambermaid - Antonella Trevisan (soprano); Don Carlo of Vargas, Leonora’s brother - Carlo Guelfi (baritone); Don Alvaro, lover of Leonora and of Royal Inca Indian descent - Marcello Giordani (tenor);
Preziosilla, a gypsy girl - Julia Gertseva (mezzo); Fra Melitone, a Friar – Bruno De Simone (bass); Padre Guardiano, Father Superior - Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass); Mastro Trabuco, Muleteer and pedlar – Carlo Bosi (tenor); An Alcade, a mayor – Filippo Polinelli (bass); Spanish military surgeon - Alessandra Luongo (tenor); Curra, Leonora’s maid - Antonella Trevisan (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
A production for the Zurich Opera House
Director: Nicolas Joël
Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Designer: Franca Squarciapino
Restaged: Timo Schussel
rec. live, Teatro Communale, Florence, Italy, 2007
Picture format: 16:9, Full HD 1080i Sound: PCM Stereo. DTS –HD Master Audio 7.1
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
Booklet notes in English, German, French ARTHAUS MUSIC BLU-RAY 108 046 [189:00]

Verdi wrote La forza del destino after a two-year gap from composition following the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in February 1859. During that period he had become a Deputy in the first parliament of the recently unified Italy. However, he was tiring of that scene when he was approached for a new opera for the Imperial Italian Theatre in St. Petersburg for the season 1861-1862. With the composer away on Parliamentary business his wife, Giuseppina, handled the correspondence and persuaded Verdi that with suitable provisions, the cold in Russia would be manageable and he should accept the highly lucrative commission. The first suggestion of subject, Victor Hugo’s dramatic poem Ruy Blas with its romantic liaisons across the social divide, met censorship problems. After some struggle for another subject Verdi settled on the Spanish drama Don Alvaro, o La fuerza de sino by Angel Perez de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. This was deemed suitable in Russia and Verdi asked his long time collaborator Piave to provide the libretto. As Verdi worked throughout the summer Giuseppina made the domestic arrangements for the shipment of Bordeaux wine, champagne, rice, macaroni cheese and salami for themselves and two servants. The Verdis arrived in St Petersburg in November 1861, but during rehearsals the principal soprano became ill. As there was no possible substitute the premiere was postponed until the following autumn and after some sightseeing the Verdi’s returned home. At its delayed premiere on 10 November 1862 the work was well received with the Czar attending a performance.
The original version was reprised in St Petersburg in the two seasons following its premiere and was seen in several Italian cities in 1863 as well as in Madrid in 1864 and Vienna in 1865. Verdi withheld the score from theatres that he considered incapable of doing it justice. It is evident that he recognised the need for alterations early on when he transposed the tenor aria in act 3 downward on the basis that only Tamberlick, who had created the role in St. Petersburg, was capable of meeting its demands. He instructed his publisher, Ricordi, to include the alteration in the scores he hired out. Verdi was also unhappy with various other aspects of the St Petersburg score, particularly the three violent deaths in the final scene. However, it was not until Tito Ricordi proposed a revival for the 1869 La Scala Carnival Season that Verdi found a way forward. By then Piave, the original librettist had suffered a stroke that paralysed him for the last eight years of his life during which Verdi provided financial help to his family. The task of versifying the revisions fell to Antonio Ghislanzoni who the composer had met at the time of the writing of Attila and with whom he developed a cordial relationship.
Two notable recordings of the St Petersburg score have made it onto record. In CD form Opera Rara issued a sound recording of this original version derived from a BBC radio recording (review). More importantly, in 1998 the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, staged the opera in a reconstruction of the original 1862 sets (review). It was in this version that Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces toured England and Wales in 2006 and which I was able to attend (review). However, it is now the norm that the 1869 version, as in this production, is performed.
The revised La Forza del Destino was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The presentation marked a rapprochement between Verdi and the theatre that he had barred from premieres of his works for over twenty years. The revisions of the score from the original version are significant rather than major and involve the substitution of the prelude by a full overture, which nowadays is often played as a concert piece. A major change to the end of act three includes the removal of the demanding tenor double aria and a reversal of the order with the Preziosilla’s Rataplan (CH.48) concluding the act. In act four the whole of the final scene was amended avoiding the triple deaths. It is replaced by the Father Guardian’s benediction as Leonora dies and Alvaro is left alive (CH.59).
In La forza del destino Verdi writes on a massive dramatic canvas. He described the story as “powerful, singular and truly vast” (The Operas of Verdi. Budden. Cassell. Vol. 2 p.430 et seq). Some cynics have described it as a rambling story of improbabilities and contend that it is Verdi’s darkest opera. It is certainly a story of unrequited love, racial prejudice and violent deaths. Ever the man of the theatre, Verdi leavened the dark facets of the story with brighter humorous interludes. The most successful of these comes with the character of the irascible monk Melitone who berates the peasants as he distributes charity in the final act (CHs.22-25) or laments the goings-on in the army camp as he is forced to join a whirling dance with the vivandiers in act 3 (CH.47). It is a role seen as a precursor to the eponymous Falstaff in the composer’s final opera.
Verdi poured great intensity and creativity into this work of his mature compositional period. The overture, scenes, arias and duets are amongst his finest music. The long melodic cantilena of the meeting between Leonore and Padre Giordano in act 2 scene 2, that starts with Leonore’s aria Sono giunta and concludes with the trio with chorus of La Vergine degli Angeli (CHs.18-27) as she is granted sanctity have no parallel in Italian opera since Bellini’s Norma in 1833. Further, none of comparable length and dramatic intensity is found elsewhere in Verdi’s work, even in the following Don Carlos, premiered in 1867.
The sets for the first three acts are simple but can be considered apt. That for act four is more problematic. The peasants fill the stage for the first scene when Melitone, after being berated by the Father Guardian, reluctantly dispenses food to the needy. For the second scene the stage is bare as Carlo seeks and meets Alvaro and they then go off to fight, the former being fatally wounded (CHs. 53-56). The last scene (CHs. 57-59) with Leonora in her hermit’s habit being contained in a three-sided cage, for the want of a better term, in front of rocks is farcical. Carlo simply walks in and stabs her and then dies! We are then left to see Alvaro and the Father Guardian singing the modified ending with the former seeking redemption for the latter. The whole of the last two scenes are inadequately staged. This is a visual anti-climax that dilutes the dramatic effect.
For this dramatic opera Verdi wanted spinto-sized voices. I have already indicated that he watered down the vocal demands on the tenor singing Alvaro for this 1869 version, but it still demands considerable vocal weight. Also, as Bergonzi demonstrates so vividly on the CD recording (EMI CMS 7 64646 2) it requires voices of colour as well as heft. Lyric-toned Marcello Giordani sings the role of Alvaro here. He has the necessary heft without the voice spreading but is often fully stretched. He lacks the necessary variety of colour and nuance to bring out the agony and uncertainties that are essential if the honourable nature of Alvaro is to be realised. It is a difficult role to bring off. At least Giordani, if not perfect does not shout through it nor leave me as uncomfortable as the late Salvatore Licitra does in the 2008 recording from Vienna also conducted by Zubin Mehta (review). As Don Carlo, his pursuing adversary, Carlo Guelfi has the vocal heft and more colours in his voice than his colleague. He characterises well without making me forget the virtues of Cappuccilli on the CD recording. Both men are a little wooden in their acting, but their big duet Solenne in quest'ora comes over well (Ch.34). Roberto Scandiuzzi as the Padre Guardiano is suitably upright and austere and he sings with steady sonority to create a believable character (CHs.20, 49). Best of all the male principals is Bruno De Simone as Melitone. He is quite superb in his acted and sung portrayal. His diction and vocal nuance are exemplary which brings his superb characterisation into full reality. The lesser characters of the Marquis of Calatrava, the Mayor, and particularly Trabuco, are adequately sung and acted.
I restrict other major superlatives to the ladies. Sometime mezzo, the Lithuanian Violeta Urmana is warm-toned and with a voice that easily encompasses Verdi’s melodic cantilena in Madre pietosa Vergine (Ch.19) and the vocal demands of Pace, pace, mio Dio (CH.57). She does so with commendable vocal grace and fulsome tone to go along with her welcome capacity for characterisation. Matching her in both singing and characterisation is the Preziosilla of Russian Julia Gertseva. She exudes personality and appropriate vivacity and is outstanding in her acted portrayal (Chs.14-15 and 45-48) with her Rataplan a sheer delight. I hope she has gone on to sing Carmen with those qualities.
A colleague, in reviewing this performance in its original DVD manifestation, was eulogistic and put it at the top of the available versions (review). In the latter point I might well agree. However, it is far from being an ideal representation of this work, Verdi’s second longest operatic creation after Don Carlos. The sets for act four are poor as is the attention to accuracy in the documentation. I cannot make out, from the description in the booklet the period of the costumes. It states, p.8, “an unobtrusive updating of about a hundred years from the time of composition, the period leading to Italian Unification. I am no expert on Spanish military uniforms evident in act three, but the armaments in use for the battle scene are certainly not circa 1860, nor are the clothes of the peasants there and elsewhere. Sloppiness in the booklet is also apparent in the notation of the Chapters, those on the two-DVD issue being given rather than the correct ones of this single Blu-Ray disc. This latter matter is relevant in respect of acts three and four; in my references I have used the correct numbers.
Zubin Mehta is also the conductor on the video performance of the work from Vienna referred to above, likewise available on DVD and Blu-Ray. His interpretation is nicely balanced between the melodic and the dramatic components of the opera. His chorus in this performance is more idiomatic and involved than their Vienna counterparts, perhaps due to the presence of native Italians among their extensive number who also bring vitality and conviction to the diverse acted requirements of the work. While we await, more in hope than expectation, a more definitive video, a cut version featuring Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli and Boris Christoff, recorded in Naples in 1958 in black and white only, is a must for Verdi enthusiasts (Hardy Classics HCD 4002). Maybe, as with the EMI CD set, that generation of Verdi singers is no longer with us!
Robert J Farr