Pountney points the Finger of Fate: La forza del destino from Vienna

Verdi: La forza del destino

Zubin Mehta/Wiener Staatsoper (C major)

forza-mehta-viennaWho would have guessed that Verdi’s La forza del destino is an opera filled with coincidental encounters, fickle fate and sheer rotten luck? If you miss that point in David Pountney’s 2008 Vienna Staatsoper production, then you will probably have had your eyes closed, for he rams home the message at every opportunity, beginning with the slow-turning ‘Wheel of Fortune’ projected during the Overture, on which a revolver and a cross also rotate at various points. Slow-motion animation (repeated) depicts the stray bullet from Don Alvaro’s tossed-aside pistol, careering off a metal bedframe into the chest of the Marquis of Calatrava. The wheel hovers above Richard Hudson’s minimalist sets, draped with corpses. War footage is projected over battle scenes and swords are strategically planted about the set. Pountney nudges us in the ribs with reminders about characters’ back-stories with slow-mo appearances to accompany certain passages. Leonora appears in Alvaro’s dream, as well as alongside Carlo during his Pereda narration, just in case we hadn’t realised who this ‘student’ really is. It’s an opera about fate… the clue’s in the title.

Joking aside, Forza is one of Verdi’s trickiest operas to bring off, a sprawling series of tableaux which requires careful directorial handling to make any sense of it. Perhaps that’s why Pountney feels the need to spell out the plot – Carlo’s death and killing of Leonora both taking place on-stage (instead of off-stage) being a perfect example. A nice touch is when we see Padre Guardiano lead Alvaro away after first ‘duel’ scene, which explains how he ends up in the monastery posing as Father Raphael.

There are eyebrow-raising directorial decisions. Nadia Krasteva may have the thighs to carry off her Vegas-style cowgirl outfit, but what Preziosilla and her camp entourage are doing dressed this way is, frankly, beyond me. Bible-clutching cowgirls in the “Rataplan” chorus don’t quite break into line-dancing, but it’s a close shave, accompanied by video footage of fighter bombers. There is a dubious ballet with nurses and injured soldiers, while Melitone indulges in naughtiness with some nuns. The other controversial move is to have Alastair Miles singing both the Marquis of Calatrava and Padre Guardiano, presumably to emphasise the latter as Leonora’s father-figure after the freak death of her real father. Unfortunately, his first scene as Padre Guardiano finds him seated at a desk like a bank manager arranging Leonora’s overdraft.

There are several cuts to Verdi’s score. The finale to Act 2 Scene 1 loses the intertwining of the Pereda, Preziosilla and choral themes, while there is another one towards the end of the Leonora—Padre Guardiano scene. The duet where Padre Guardiano ticks off Fra Melitone for his lack of patience, while the latter guesses at the mysterious Raphael’s dark side, is scrapped, as is Trabucco’s Act 3 solo. There is a reversal of scenes in Act 4 so that Carlo’s first attempt to goad Alvaro to a duel arrives later. There are good practical reasons for this, not least in giving baritone and tenor a well-earned breather after their previous scene together, as well as avoiding giving the impression that Alvaro’s recovery is miraculously speedy.

I don’t think it’s any accident that Carlos Álvarez, the vengeful Don Carlo, is the single singer featured on the cover photo, as he’s far and away the most effective, impressive performer. Dramatically convincing, he broods darkly and his burnished baritone, although not ringing out as freely as one would wish, is powerful. Carlo’s aria “Urna fatale” comes off heroically, followed by a strong cabaletta. In terms of Verdi baritones, other than Dmitri Hvorostovsky, he has few rivals.

Nina Stemme is an involving Leonora, with a lovely rich lower and mid-register tone, but she is strained and variable above the stave, where she fails to sing piano. Her B flat near the end of her Act 1 prayer “Me pellegrina ed orfana” is raw, although she settles by the time of the monastery scene. “Pace! Pace mio Dio!” finds her in stronger form.

Sadly, this performance is not how I’d choose to remember Salvatore Licitra, who died in tragic circumstances last year, although it is reminiscent of his Alvaro at Covent Garden in La Scala’s troubled production. When he’s good, he’s seriously impressive, such as in the famous duet “Solenne in quest’ora”, which conductor Zubin Mehta takes at a slick tempo, but Licitra wanders off-pitch too often for comfort, with sliding and scooping between notes. His histrionic top can be blustery and his acting limited, but he’s a likeable enough Alvaro and his partnerships with Álvarez and Stemme provide some rewarding singing; the con slancio section at the end of the Alvaro—Leonora duet in Act 1 is particularly thrilling.

Krasteva throws herself into cowgirl Preziosilla with gusto, although her fruity mezzo noticeably lacks a trill. Miles is sonorous as Padre Guardiano and the Marquis, although it’s noticeable how his lower notes lack any real power. Tiziano Bracci is an irascible Melitone, but there is a complete lack of humour in his portrayal, which surely misses the point of this character, one of Verdi’s few genuinely comic creations before Falstaff. Mehta conducts effectively.

Productions of Forza are always welcome, but this staging is problematic, both vocally and dramatically. Gergiev’s Mariinsky recording, based on the original St Petersburg production, provides interest, but for vintage Verdi singing (and straightforward storytelling) the Tebaldi/ Corelli/ Bastianini performance from Naples is a classic.

Verdi: La forza del destino – Nina Stemme, Salvatore Licitra, Carlos Alvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Alastair Miles, Tiziano Bracci (C Major Blu-ray 708204)
Gorchakova, Grigorian, Putilin; Kirov/ Gergiev (Arthaus) 100078 (1998)
Tebaldi, Corelli, Bastianini; Teatro di San Carlo/ Molinari-Pradelli (Hardy) HCD 4002 (1958)

This review originally appeared in IRR. 

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