Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) La forza del destino (1862)
Donna Leonora – Maria Callas (soprano)
Don Alvaro – Richard Tucker (tenor)
Don Carlo di Vargas – Carlo Tagliabue (baritone)
Il Padre Guardiano – Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass)
Preziosilla – Elena Nicolai (mezzo-soprano)
Fra Melitone – Renato Capecchi (baritone)
Il marchese di Caltrava – Plinio Clabassi (bass)
Curra – Rina Cavallari (mezzo-soprano)
Maestro Trabuco – Gino del Signore (tenor)
Un alcade/Un chirurgo – Dario Caselli (bass)
Soldati/Giuscatari – Giulio Scarinci, Ottorino Bagalli
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Tullio Serafin
rec. 17-24 August 1954
Full score, vocal score & Italian/English libretto available to download PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 172 [3 CDs: 165:00]
La forza del destino, premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1862, doesn’t belong to the most frequently performed of Verdi’s operas, but it still has a solid foothold in the standard repertoire. The somewhat rambling story is a drawback but most of the music is Verdi at his best, and with a first-class cast of singers it is a delight for the ear. Several of the musical numbers are well-known: Leonora’s, Alvaro’s and Carlo’s arias, and the duet for Alvaro and Carlo Solenne in questora. The overture as well, even though it wasn’t added to the score until 1869. Complete recordings have been fairly few. The earliest was a Cetra recording from Turin 1941, conducted by Gino Marinuzzi (review). It was followed ten years later by a La Scala set under Armando La Rosa Parodi, from which I in the 1960s bought a highlights LP on the Saga label. In 1954 Columbia recorded the set under consideration and the following year Decca responded with a star-studded cast under Molinari-Pradelli. A fourth set also appeared during the 1950s, again on Decca with Previtali at the helm. Further recordings were issued in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and Ralph Moore has discussed them in his recent survey of Forza recordings.
The present set initially had a mixed reception, from high praise to near write-off. As is often the case the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. The first thing to notice is the excellent sound, a result of Andrew Rose’s XR remastering. He has eliminated the hiss that was inherent in recordings of this vintage, he has added ambience which gives a fuller rounder sound, he has conjured up a greater depth that gives the sound picture almost stereophonic spread and he has cleaned the sound in a way that gives more instrumental detail but at the same time creates a homogenous body to the orchestra. And there is impressive power, the brass rings out triumphantly, almost overwhelmingly. The organ in the church scenes is atmospheric and well balanced. When the chorus and then the soloists enter the effect is lifelike and ideally balanced. Even though the sound cannot stand comparison with recordings from the following decades, nobody should fight shy of this set on sonic grounds.
When it comes to the conducting this set is a winner in every respect. Tullio Serafin, had been instrumental in launching many of the great singers of the 20th century, in particular Maria Callas, whom he supported in a good dozen of her complete opera recordings. The sixth of them was La forza del destino. Here in August 1954 he was approaching his 76th birthday but his vitality is tangible and he never misses dramatic high-spots, which are frequently recurrent in this work. Still his is a very flexible reading with many sensitive ritardandi. He catches the dramatic ebb and flow masterly. Compared to him Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, in the near-contemporaneous Decca set with a superior cast, is just ordinary. His is a workman-like reading which functions well enough, but while Serafin has the La Scala players sitting on the edge of their chairs, Molinari-Pradelli’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia musicians are comfortably leaned back. Serafin’s Forza has the same unremitting thrust forward as Marinuzzi’s Cetra set. Interestingly two of Marinuzzi’s singers back in 1941 have survived to this new set: Carlo Tagliabue as Don Carlo and Dario Caselli as Alcade. The latter sports a powerful black bass that is worthy of the small but important role. He doubles as Un chirurgo as well, which he didn’t do in 1941. Tagliabue, who in 1941 was in his early 40s, was in brilliant voice then but not very subtle. Here he takes some time to warm up – he was 56 at the time and shows signs of wear – but recovers and makes an honourable Carlo, though he can’t compete with Bastianini on the Decca set. In fact I had low expectations, remembering his strong but rather unwieldy Alfio in Cavalleria, recorded for Cetra a few years earlier. Don Carlo is a major role, but among the minor roles Gino del Signore makes a vivid Trabuco and Plinio Clabassi is a sonorous, warm and fatherly Marchese di Calatrava. Clabassi was a distinguished basso cantante for thirty years and his recorded legacy is quite comprehensive. It may be interesting to know that he was married to Beniamino Gigli’s singing daughter Rina. The gypsy girl Preziosilla is sung by Bulgarian born Elena Nicolai, who is rather miscast. The role should be sung by a youthful sounding mezzo-soprano and Nicolai, who here was approaching 50, is squally and sounds over-aged. Curra, Leonora’s maid, is ably sung by Rina Cavallari, a valuable comprimario singer for many years. She passed away as recently as 2014, less than two months before her 100th birthday. Renato Capecchi was one of the truly great Italian baritones during the post-war years, as much at home in roles like Rigoletto and both Figaros as in buffa roles. In the latter capacity he is heard here as the comic Franciscan Melitone. His mock-sermon in the third act and the opening aria in act IV when he distributes soup to the beggars are comic highlights. He may not be larger-than-life the way Fernando Corena is on the Decca set, but that’s more a matter of approach than a difference in music-dramatic quality. His superior, Padre Guardiano, is less of an asset. His rounded tones have a certain fatherly warmth, suitable for the role but there is also a certain blandness. Cesare Siepi on the Decca set is far superior – as is Bonaldo Giaiotto on the Levine set from the 1970s, a singer I once heard in the flesh in this role.
I have saved the two lovers, who hardly meet after the dramatic separation in the first scene of the opera and only reunite at the end when she is already mortally wounded and dies in his arms, till the last. Here we have world-class singing and deep dramatic involvement. Richard Tucker, who re-recorded the role ten years later opposite Leontyne Price, is in glorious voice – occasionally a bit lachrymose but never in the Gigli class – and he also finds softer nuances when needed. Mario Del Monaco on the Decca set surpasses him in sheer volume but not necessarily in understanding of the role. Both are superb, only challenged by Domingo in either of his two recordings. The tenor is in effect the title character, since the Spanish drama the libretto is based on is titled Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino. But it is the soprano who has the greatest music: the romanza Me pellegrina ed orfana in the first act and La Vergine degli Angeli in the second act. After that she lives as a recluse for five years in a cave outside the monastery until she makes comeback in the last scene of the opera with the magical aria Pace, pace, mio Dio. The final trio is another deeply moving scene. Anyone, who has ever heard Maria Callas, knows that her understanding of the roles she took on, very often makes her readings almost unbearably intense and gripping. That’s the way it is here and since her voice was in near-mint condition during that August week 1954, there is very little of the wobble that sometimes – certain times quite often – disfigured her tone. Moreover she often sings extremely beautifully, thanks to, I believe, the warmth Andrew Rose’s ambient stereo has added to the sound picture. Renata Tebaldi on the rivalling Decca set, had that beauty of tone as Heavenly gift from the beginning, and since her big voice could summon drama and intensity to fulfil all the requirements of the role, hers is a reading to set beside Callas’s. It should be remembered that Tebaldi stopped singing the role of Leonora after she had taken part in the tragic performance of Forza at the Metropolitan in early 1960, when Leonard Warren, who played Don Carlo, died onstage.
If I, in the mid-1950s had decided to buy my first complete La forza del destino, I would, after deep consideration, have chosen the Decca for the more evenly cast soloists and in spite of the lacklustre conducting. But I would sorely have regretted not having Serafin’s superior conducting and Callas’s searing and beautiful reading of Leonora’s part and probably have saved up for that set as well. Those who today, 65 years later, are contemplating a purchase of a vintage Forza, should ideally make the same choice. You will never regret it.
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