Forza del Destino, La


DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 1998 | Valery Gergiev, Elijah Moshinsky, Grigory Kaasev, Galina Gorchakova, Nikolai Putilin, Gegam Grigorian, Marianna Tarasova, Sergei Alexashkin, Georgy Zashavny, Lia Shevtsova, Yevegeny Nikitin, Nikolai Gassiev, Yun Laptev | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that it’s a performance of the rarely heard original St Petersburg version, written by the composer for the Imperial Opera in 1862. It was subsequently revised in 1867 for Milan and it’s the later version that has become the more commonly performed or at least better known principally for the famous extended overture that Verdi added. In reality, although there is clearly an attempt by the composer to bring a better musical and dramatic integrity to the piece, the differences between the two versions aren’t all that significant, but in addition to having a rare opportunity to compare them, there is the pleasure alone of seeing a fine performance of the earlier version actually being performed in St Petersburg in 1998 at the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev.

If there’s still a lack of coherence to the drama in both versions, and a failure to conform to the expected romantic models (up until the tragic denouement of the opera Don Alvaro and Leonora only meet briefly in the short Act 1 and not in circumstances best suited to a romantic duet) - which may be considered a point in its favour - Verdi’s musical motifs bring a sense of that force of destiny that directs the course of three lives and draws them together. After Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father, the Marchese di Calatrava, as they prepare to go against his wishes and elope, Leonora (like many of Verdi’s opera heroines by no means a straightforward virtuous character) casts herself into the hands of fate and becomes a hermit. Alvaro, fleeing from the disaster, bemoans his fate not to be a noble of ancient Inca blood, but a man forced to run from the horror of the death he has unwittingly caused, and the love of Leonora that he has lost. Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas meanwhile is forced to strive to find his father’s killer and restore the honour of the Calatrava name.

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Although it remains imperfect in both versions, Verdi’s later attempts to add characterisation and musical refinement still not being enough to compensate for a dramatic structure that remains disjointed with some implausible twists of fate, there’s some interest certainly in seeing the original version played out with a little more of that punchy earlier Verdi style. Not being quite so concerned with a dramatic flow, but being made up more evidently of a variety of little scenes and choral set-pieces, the St Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino follows the Italian aria-cabaletta opera model a little more closely. These are reduced in the later version, with some arias cut through the restructuring of the drama - notably Don Alvaro’s ‘Quel sangue sparsi’, delivered at the end of Act III when Carlo is believed dead in a duel that is not interrupted by troops as in the later version - and through attempts by Verdi to bring a sense of reconciliation, or perhaps accommodation with one’s fate in a manner that is slightly less harsh than the original, Alvaro throwing himself from a cliff at the conclusion here.

Despite the revisions made to the Italian version, the essential dramatic arc and the fate of the characters however remain largely unchanged. The coincidences that tie these figures are still not entirely convincing, but they are made compelling - in both versions - by the strength in Verdi’s musical writing that aligns character so beautifully not just to Wagnerian leitmotifs, but to melodies that are expressive of their condition. It might have a mid-eighteenth century setting, but it’s clear that Verdi doesn’t have to look too far beyond his own time to relate in some meaningful way with these figures who in better times might have been friends and lovers, but whose lives have been torn apart by greater forces beyond their control - the tides of war, fate and the demands of honour.

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Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky, this 1998 recording at the Mariinsky Theatre is a very traditional period staging, but the theatricality of the painted backdrops that set the scene for the Seville locations, army camps and monasteries suits the punchier, melodramatic style of the earlier version of the work, the dark lighting of the stage working also with the dark tones in Verdi’s score. That’s brought out wonderfully by Valery Gergiev in this production, finding nonetheless a romantic sweep and sensitivity within the score that works hand-in-hand with the heavier dramatic colouring. I’m not familiar with any of the Russian singers here but they are well cast and handle the Italian phrasing well. Galina Gorchakova is a fine Leonora, carrying the nature and interior conflict of her character well, her singing strong and consistent. Gegam Grigorian is a lovely lyrical Don Alvaro, but doesn’t always seem to be dramatically involved. His ‘Della natal sua terra’ aria at the start of Act III is beautifully sung, but he’s not as strong in ‘Quel sangue sparsi’ by the end of the act. Nikolai Putilin is a solid, earnest Don Carlo, but I didn’t find Marianna Tarasova made such a strong impact as Preziosilla.

Directed for the screen by Brian Large, the production comes across well giving a good impression of the whole stage while capturing all the little details in the drama without any excessive editing trickery or close-ups, although there is one awkward edit at the end of Act III. A 1998 recording, it is not filmed in High Definition, so there’s no Blu-ray release, but the quality of the 16:9 widescreen image for DVD is excellent nonetheless, as is the quality of the PCM 2.0 stereo audio track. Other than notes on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet, there are no extra features on the disc itself, the 2 hours 45 minutes of the opera on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Dutch and Spanish only - there is no Italian for anyone wanting to read the original libretto.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011

Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.

I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.

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While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.

Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?

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As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.

Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.

The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.