Opera News, January 2014
|JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC
Verdi: La forza del destino, München, Vorstellung 5.
La Forza del Destino
I saw my first performance of Verdi's Forza del Destino nearly half a
century ago at the Old Met at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. It was a
revival of the much maligned, truncated 1952 production, directed by Herbert
Graf and designed by Eugene Berman, which I viewed from a spot at the very
front of the orchestra standing room, so close to the stage that one felt
one could nearly touch the performers. The fact that about twenty-five
percent of the stage could not be seen was more than balanced by the
proximity to both singers and orchestra. My memory is of a splendid evening.
Ah, the good old days!
For those who are convinced that nothing can
ever match yesteryear, it is a pleasure to report that Verdi is alive and
well in Munich in 2014. There, the Bavarian State Opera, under the
leadership of Nikolaus Bachler, has gathered an elite cast in the
Nationaltheater for its new production of Verdi's masterpiece, and I cannot
conceive of the opera being better sung than it was at the performance I
attended on January 5. In fact, this was one of those rare occasions on
which nearly everyone in the cast was not only perfect for his or her role
but also in stunning form. The singing was of such a high level that I am
not even tempted to begin with a description of Martin Kušej's production —
thoughtful, imaginative, unusual but at the same time unusually true to
Verdi's text. But more about Kušej later.
Anja Harteros, who seemed
uncomfortable as Leonora in Munich's recent production of Il Trovatore, made
the role of the Forza Leonora her own in every way. It was not only that her
singing was exquisite, her crystal-clear voice strong and communicative in
every register, but the way she delved to the heart of her character that
made her interpretation complete. When she reached up to the cross hanging
on the wall in the convent scene, she did so with such conviction that one
could feel the strength of her belief. The weight of her guilt and her
intensity of feeling were projected with humanity and humility, both
absolutely apt in a work of Verdi, that most human of all composers. Her
"Madre, pietosa Vergine" was exquisitely sung and phrased, topped only by an
unbelievably intense "Pace, pace mio Dio."
As Alvaro, Jonas Kaufmann
was overwhelming. At full voice, he is without rival, and his full voice
held out through the entire evening. His tone is luscious and thrilling —
and there was more than a bit of the animal in his heroic presentation of
the character. It is enormously to his credit that Kaufmann even attempts to
sing certain phrases softly — the first measures of "O tu che in seno agli
angeli," for example — even if not all of his pianos are effective without
being affected. Ludovic Tézier, as Don Carlo, was very much Kaufmann's
equal, matching his colleague in both volume and intensity. Tézier's is a
dark, supple instrument that was used to its limits in a most positive way.
His "Urna fatale" was devastating, even if he didn't take the unwritten top
note in the final line.
Vitalij Kowaljow was as sonorous as he was
commanding as both the strict, unfeeling Marchese di Calatrava and the
compassionate Padre Guardiano. His singing flowed, his phrasing was
consummate, his tone teemed with beauty. I have heard many good Fra
Melitones throughout the years but never one to match Renato Girolami whose
comic, tragic and ironic inflection was matched by vocal flawlessness. If
Nadia Kresteva lagged a bit behind the rest, it may be attributable to the
near impossibility of singing an ideal Preziosilla. The role more or less
needs to be blasted out, and blasting has a way of taking its revenge on the
voice. The smaller roles were all well cast. The chorus and extra chorus,
directed by Sören Eckhoff, were exceptional, particularly in the "Rataplan."
Asher Fisch led a spirited, pointed overture and conducted a rounded
presentation, although several scenes might have benefitted from a bit more
vim and vigor.
Director Kušej has obviously read the text of Forza
extremely carefully. He has also read between the lines and seems well aware
of Verdi's political, social and religious views at the time of composition,
in 1861. Kušej has chosen to set the drama in the modern age, rather than
the eighteenth century specified in the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
In the end, what difference does it make in which era wars are being fought?
In the crowd scenes, Kušej presents us with a war-weary, disoriented folk,
and the Sodom and Gomorrah atmosphere of Act III is but a mirror of
Melitone's text. The tableau of the Calatrava dinner table during the
overture was a telling one: the Marchese di Calatrava was like a "Don,"
uncommunicative and cold, his security personnel keeping him informed of the
impending circumstances, a priest present at table, a servant in waiting.
The Marchese turned into his emotional opposite, Padre Guardiano. The Priest
became Melitone, and the other characters likewise assumed roles in the
opera. The Marchese knew that Alvaro was on the grounds of his estate,
because his "security" people had informed him. Destiny is not as arbitrary
as one thinks!
Kušej and his designers, Martin Zehetgruber (sets),
Heidi Hackl (costumes) and Reinhard Traub (lighting), brought extra
understanding to each character, adding to one's accumulated knowledge
without overloading. Leonora, crushed by guilt, was put into a cave made up
entirely of huge, white crosses, the weight of which were literally crushing
her. She was given a ritual bath (or baptism by immersion) by the brothers
by being dipped three times into a large baptismal font before she sang "La
vergine degli angeli." Curra was made into a servant who influenced and
pushed Leonora into a decision with which she was not at all comfortable.
Preziosilla here was clearly a warmongering whore. These are little things,
but they help differentiate between a merely "modern" production and a
meaningful interpretation. Kušej's staging isn't perfect by any means, but
one emerges with that feeling that one understands the motivations and story
better than one did before the performance began. Can one ask for anything