Opera News, January 2014
Verdi: La forza del destino, München, Vorstellung 5. Januar 2014
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 more?

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