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Maria Nockin
Music & Vision, December 2010

‘… a rhythmically alert, exciting performance …’

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La forza del destino was first performed at the Imperial theatre of St Petersburg, Russia, on 22 November 1862. It was not seen in Italy until 27 November 1869, however, and that is the version that we see in this production originally staged at the Zurich Opera.

Nicolas Joël’s Swiss production, restaged by Timo Schlüssel for the Florence Maggio Musicale, advances the time of the story to the era immediately preceeding Italian unification. Although the updating does not alter the story, it renders some of the characters’ actions less believable because western European culture had changed radically in the interim. Ezio Frigerio’s dark but exquisitely detailed sets help tell the opera’s sprawling tale, however, while Franca Squarciapino’s costumes establish the plot firmly in its transposed setting. The DVD was recorded live in 2007 at the Teatro Communale in Florence, Italy. Direction for television and video is by Andrea Bevilacqua who, for the most part, gives you the feeling of being seated in the opera house.

Leonora and Alvaro are sung by Violeta Urmana and Marcello Giordani, No one looking at them would think that they are teenage lovers, but they put the drama of their story across effectively. Giordani takes a few minutes to find his way but after that he shows that he has the robust tones and smooth legato with which to convey Verdi’s surging emotional content. Urmana has a truly dramatic sound that may be heard to better advantage in the opera house than on electronic media, but it is the right voice for this passionate role. She makes you understand her desperate circumstances and her longing for the peace offered by the life of a hermit. Her aria ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ is the highpoint of the set because of the commitment with which she interprets it.

Carlo Guelfi is a vengeful Carlo who sings with dark and powerful tones. He has no sympathy for his sister’s situation nor does he seem to acknowledge that his father’s death at the hands of Alvaro was accidental. He relents for a moment when his friendship for a wounded fellow soldier diverts his attention and his duet with Alvaro throws off emotional sparks.

As a somewhat uninvolved Franciscan superior, Padre Guardiano, Roberto Scandiuzzi tries in vain to protect Leonora. He sings with lyrical sonorities and has excellent low tones, but often faces the conductor instead of the character with whom he should be interacting. Julia Gertseva is an attractive Preziosilla who probably could reel in recruits for the army. She suffuses her stirring lines with an emotional appeal as she portrays this one-sided character. As the Franciscan Fra Melitone, Bruno de Simone adds some well characterized comic relief to this dramatic story. The comprimario roles of Curra, Un Alcalde, Mastro Trabuco and Un Chirurgo are all solidly cast with strong singers who contribute a great deal to the value of this performance.

Zubin Mehta conducts a rhythmically alert, exciting performance that never lets the tension down for a minute. He really is the glue that holds the various individual renditions together and it is largely his contributions that make the DVD worthwhile. Although this production seems to be a close-up version of a performance designed to be seen from at least fifty feet away and it does not have the visual impact of some opera motion pictures, it does contain some excellent singing and that, after all, is the heart of opera.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, July 2009

This is a tremendously enjoyable production of an opera that can be difficult to bring off. La forza del destino is so epic that it runs the risk of sprawling, and if the performers and the stage director don’t exercise self-discipline, the opera quickly loses its focus. I don’t think anyone will argue that this is the best-sung performance that he or she ever heard—in spite of its difficulties, there are many good audio-only recordings of this opera—but this is one of those times when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The last time I reviewed a DVD of this opera in these pages, it was a version dating from 1983 from the Metropolitan Opera, with Leontyne Price, Giuseppe Giacomini, and Leo Nucci in the lead roles. One might assume that the Met’s production would easily surpass the competition, but this newer version wins hands down, not because the singing is better (although that is arguably the case) but because the drama seems to mean something to everyone involved. The Met’s version is static, and, to be honest, frequently dull.

Stage director Nicolas Joël has no strange ideas about this opera, other than moving it up in time to what appears to be the 1800s. He handles the important crowd scenes very effectively, and encourages the singers to interact with each other in a dramatically realistic manner. Ezio Frigerio’s sets are simple but evocative, and Jürgen Hoffmann’s lighting is appropriately gloomy. Video director Andrea Bevilacqua has captured the opera’s mood perfectly, and whoever edited the production for video had an ear for the music as well: for once, the editing works with the music, not against it. The 16:9 picture format is crisp, like a cool and moonlit night, and the sound—I heard this DVD in the LPCM stereo format—is impressive in its impact and clarity. I just wish that we had been left to enjoy the overture without having to view the orchestra through a fake proscenium arch, and without opening credits competing for one’s attention. This music is too good to be wasted on “reading the program,” as it were.

It’s probably a stupid thing to applaud a television screen. Nevertheless, that is what I found myself doing as Violeta Urmana finished singing “Pace, pace, mio Dio.” Maybe it’s because she is not a petite woman, but I found myself thinking of Zinka Milanov and Eileen Farrell throughout much of her performance. Although it is not used with great subtlety, her voice is blessedly secure, and there is a nobility to Urmana’s singing which is right for Verdi. Her death scene had me in tears, which is more than I can say for Price and Caballé in the same scene. Tenor Marcello Giordani has a brilliant, almost metallic voice, and he uses it excitingly and with emotion; “O tu che in seno agli angeli” is truly moving. His problem is a tendency to go sharp. Here, his sound at the very top of his voice is more attractive than it was in his aria disc on Naxos, which made the top sound dry and strained. As for his acting, he is successful in depicting Don Alvaro’s nearly constant state of mental anguish. As Don Carlo, Carlo Guelfi has a dry sound—definitely more Leonard Warren than Robert Merrill—but like both of those singers, he is not lazy, and what he lacks in tonal allure (and sometime finesse) he makes up for in spirit. In his later interactions with Don Alvaro, this Carlo’s sinister, cynical smile is chilling, and by intention or by necessity, that uncomfortable smile is matched by his voice. Roberto Scandiuzzi is a surprisingly worn-sounding Padre Guardiano, although he’s one of the more attractive-looking monks one might hope to see in this opera. He’s quite overshadowed by Bruno de Simone’s fantastic Melitone in a performance that is both richly comic and malicious, and also terrifically sung. That leaves us with Julia Gertseva’s sexy Preziosilla. Vocally, she lacks the requisite agility for the role, but the sound is appropriately alluring, and you have to admire her exuberance in the “Rataplan” chorus at the end of act III.

In this performance, Mehta reminds us what a fine conductor he was on so many opera recordings in the 1970s. Nothing is self-indulgent or rushed, and the score’s excitement, melancholy, and (above all) melody are given their due. At times, the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino sounds a little undersized, but the payoff is the transparency and bite of its playing.

With its imperfect but completely likable cast, wonderful conducting, sensible and imaginative direction, and high production values, this DVD of La forza del destino is well worth considering as a first choice.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, May 2009

This is a 2007 performance as part of the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the Teatro Comunale in Florence. The production is from the Zurich Opera with staging by Nicolas Joël, sets by Ezio Frigerio, costumes by Franca Squarciapino, (lack of) lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann and Luciano Novelli (it took two designers to get the stage so dark). There are lots of black and brown costumes artfully blended into the almost uniformly dark backdrops. The wall of the monastery is adorned with a huge Byzantine gold-backed mosaic of Christ the Pancrator dimly glowing through the gloom. The opera has been updated to the period of Italian unification, the “Risorgomento”, when it was written. This is not as bad as it might imply. For all its stark formality and seriousness it really seems in keeping with the dark tragedy of the opera’s plot.

Best of all, this is a complete performance of Verdi’s 1869 revision with all the music intact, including scenes and snippets usually omitted (ballet, extensive folk-genre scenes, both duels, Melitone’s comic antics). And even better: it’s a glorious performance. Mehta get the performance off to a great start with a ripsnorting, fire-and-brimstone reading of the overture and follows through with a feverish intensity. Vocally this is an all round sensitive performance with no hyper-kinetic arm-flailing or vocal grand-standing.

Duccio Dal Monte (Calatrava) sets the tone at the beginning with a moving portrayal of paternal affection and then disappointment. Urmana’s robust vocalism is combined with delicate restraint when needed, her lower register particularly lovely. The real test of the tenor is Alvaro’s aria ‘O tu che in seno agli angeli’. Giordani starts it soft and slow, delicate even, building to a full-throated outcry of pain. He is a model of stylish singing. Guelfi (Carlo) is brilliant in meaningfully spitting out the text, singing heartily. The two men combine for a real highlight in their duet ‘Solenne in quest’ora’, soft, slow and fraught with meaning.

Gertseva’s Preziosilla is bold and brassy of character, dark and solid through the range with fine musicianship to bind everything together. Scandiuzzi is a middle-aged monk, no white-haired sage, seriously sung with dark beauty. The bespectacled Melitone of De Simone is refreshingly restrained and well sung. Excellence even includes the minor roles; Carlo Bosi’s Trabucco is also well sung and the comedy restrained. Filippo Polinelli sings a solid, ironic Alcalde.

Jane Reed
Video Librarian, May 2009

In Verdi’s 1869 standard version of La Forza Del Destino, star-crossed lovers Alvaro and Leonora’s troubles are compounded when he accidentally kills her father. Escaping to the countryside, Leonora meets her brother Don Carlo (determined to avenge their father’s death) before she retires to a monastery as a hermit. Meanwhile, Alvaro goes to war, where he and Don Carlo, under false identities, form an alliance forged through the hazards of battle. The soldiers eventually wind up at the monastery, where the two lovers are united…briefly before the tragic ending. Filmed live at the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Italy in 2007, La Forza Del Destino is performed by the Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentine, nimbly conducted by Zubin Mehta, and features a strong cast that includes Violeta Urmana as Leonora, Marcello Giordani as Alvaro, and Carlo Guelfi as Don Carlo. Although the setting has been updated to the 19th century, this version—directed by Nicolas Joël—is still a very traditional production, presented here with Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, and LPCM stereo options. Recommended.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, April 2009

When aristocratic heroine Leonora is tragically separated from her lover, Don Alvaro, she sees no alternative but to go live as a hermit outside a monastery.

In one of the many twists of fate that give the opera its name, Don Alvaro, gives up his military life for monastic seclusion. They will, of course, meet. But their bliss is short-lived, as another’s vengeance seals Leonora’s doom.

Giuseppe Verdi mined this most operatic of plots to great effect, writing gorgeous arias and ensemble pieces. The Overture is so rich that it gets programmed frequently as a standalone orchestral piece.

This giant, bubbling stew of melodrama—in its revised, improved 1869 version—was given a solid, traditional staging by Nicolas Joël in Florence in 2007, and recorded for Italian television.

The largely Italian cast is evenly good, with a standout performance by Lithuanian mezzo-turned-soprano Violeta Urmana as Leonora. Her rich, large voice has both power and expression—and she has the acting chops to match.

The orchestra is led with commanding force by Zubin Mehta. The audio is nicely balanced. Unfortunately, there are no extras.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, April 2009

This opera production has much going for it. It is quite ably and imaginatively directed by Nicolas Joel, who later this year assumes duties as director of the Paris Opera. The cast features many familiar talents, including Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana as Leonora. She has an unusual background in opera: she established herself as one of the leading young mezzos, and then, in December 2002, took on her first soprano role, when she appeared at La Scala as Iphigénie in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. She has since sung Aida, Isolde, Leonora and other major soprano roles, leaving her mezzo past behind her. The other cast members include Marcello Giordani as Don Alvaro, Carlo Guelfi as Don Carlo, Julia Gertseva as Preziosilla and Roberto Scandiuzzi as Frá Melitone.

Everyone here does reasonably well, though I would say none of the singing is outstanding. That said, Giordani and Urmana make it worthwhile for the beauty of their voices. Moreover, Mehta fashions a compelling interpretation of this challenging and not wholly consistent opera, and he draws fine playing from the orchestra. The big scenes with chorus are quite colorful: try the Third Act numbers, tracks 14–17 on the second disc (“Lorché pifferi e tamburi”, “Venite all’indovina”, “Qua, vivandiere” and “A buon mercato”), where Julia Gertseva and Carlo Bosi turn in fine work. As for the technical aspects, the sets are atmospheric, the camera work fine, and the sound reproduction excellent.

I should also mention that Bruno de Simone as Frá Melitone is quite good, both dramatically and vocally. He may not look the role in his diminutive size, but he’s quite convincing. There have been only a few other DVD recordings of this opera, including efforts by Levine and the Met (from 1984, with Price) and Gergiev (from 1998 at the Mariinsky Theater). This TDK production is probably the best bet among recent entries, not least because of its obvious technological advantages in both sound and video. Recommended.

Robert Levine, April 2009

Set designer Ezio Frigerio and costumer Franca Squarciapino have designed a gorgeous, traditional, plush Forza for Florence’s May Festival (originally for the Zurich opera), much like we might have seen 30 or 50 or 70 years ago. Set about 100 years after the original setting (which places it near Italian unification), the Spanish flavor is palpable. The Marquis of Calatrava’s home is elegant; Padre Guardiano’s monastery has a ravishing, huge mosaic of Christ as backdrop; the battlefield is, well, a battlefield; and Leonora’s hermitage is properly lonely. Nicolas Joël’s direction is nothing to rave about, and the singers are not particularly good actors and actresses: this is a very hand-to-heart, hand-to-forehead, Preziozilla-on-table production…Violetta Urmana’s voice is a beauty--big, round, easily produced and expressive--and she sings intelligently off the text…Marcello Giordani, in his best voice as Alvaro…manages all of the music well (the performance is uncut)…Somewhat better is Carlo Guelfi as Carlo, who has a true Verdi baritone, a fine legato, and better acting skills than his colleagues. In addition, his anger is palpable—he actually seems “in” his character. Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Guardiano is admirable—sincere, reverent, flavorful—with Melitone (a good Bruno De Simone) comforting to Leonora…The orchestra and chorus play and sing very well. Subtitles are provided in all major European languages, the picture is excellent, and there are plenty of tracks—27 on the first DVD and 32 on the second.

Samuel Perwin
Opera News, April 2009

La Forza del Destino is a much-maligned opera within Verdi’s oeuvre, and not without reason. Clocking in at almost four hours, its meandering plot includes an accidental murder, a war, a solemn oath that threatens death by lightning and multiple mistaken identities—one of which includes disguising a dramatic soprano as a boy, always a testament to the suspension of disbelief required in opera (cf. Fidelio or Joan Sutherland in Rigoletto). But if you can make it through all of that, you’ll be rewarded with some brilliant singing from the three leads, all of whom display their abundant talents in this solid, if a bit stolid, production on the TDK label, recorded live at the Teatro Comunale in Firenze in 2007.

As Leonora, the formidable Violeta Urmana certainly has the chops to get through this punishing role, with its two show-stopping arias. With a rich, powerful tone, she sails through Verdi’s long phrases. While her technique guides her well through the breathless, choppy duets of Act I (typical of Verdi heroines in love), in the Act II powerhouse “Son giunta…Madre pietosa vergine,” she is at her best. Her only troubles lie at the very top of her range, where Verdi’s many exposed high notes sound just that—exposed. Urmana attacks them with such gusto that they sound slightly raw and out of place with her normally beautiful line. But beyond this, it’s a bravura performance. Her pianissimo in Act IV’s famous “Pace, pace mio Dio” is nothing short of flawless.

Marcello Giordani, as Leonora’s ill-fated lover, Alvaro, proves why he remains the Italian tenor par excellence at the Met. He sings with such intelligent phrasing and gorgeous, blooming top notes that it is shocking to learn this is his debut in the role. He barely breaks a sweat, even after Act III’s marathon of “O tu che in seno agli angeli”—one of Verdi’s most underrated tenor arias—and an extended series of duets with Don Carlo, smartly and richly sung by Carlo Guelfi. Julia Gertseva, as the Gypsy Preziosilla, adds a dollop of much-needed feminine charm to this otherwise ruggedly masculine opera. (Even Leonora, after disguising herself as a boy, decides to live alone in a cave rather than go to a convent.) Her arias are the opera’s few lighter moments, and she sings them with charm and style.

The production itself plays it pretty safe in terms of sets and costumes. The massive, jolly Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino needs room to fill the stage, and Ezio Frigerio’s stalwart but effective sets let them do just that. Zubin Mehta’s smooth conducting guides the rollicking score at just the right pace, drawing a nice mix of intensity and subtlety.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, February 2009

This fabulous DVD captures one of those rare evenings when everything worked. The singing and playing are fantastic, and the production is faithful and unobtrusive. If you’ve ever found yourself despairing for today’s lack of big Verdi voices or for the horror of modern production styles then get your hands on this for the perfect antidote.

Forza has always been a problematic opera with its vast ranges of time and location. Any production treads a fine line between believable characters and preposterous melodrama. Zubin Mehta and Piero Monti present Forza as a full-on, blood-and-thunder melodrama and the result is powerfully compelling. The production is naturalistic and traditional, updated to be contemporary with the 1860s when Verdi was writing. The Marquis of Calatrava has a quietly sumptuous bourgeois home in the first act, and there is no doubt that we are in the Spanish mountains for the tavern scene in Act 2—we get authentic gypsy costumes and even a gorgeous sunset behind the mountains. The monks wear traditional habits in a monastery dominated by an image of Christ Pantocrator, and the soldiers in Act 3 wear uniforms consistent with the wars of the Risorgimento. To under-score the point, Preziosilla finishes Act 3 waving a massive Italian tricolour. In the final scene Leonora’s hermitage is a cage which she cannot leave: she holds Alvaro’s hand through the bars but even at the end they can never be together. It all works tremendously well. There is nothing here to distract you from the music, and plenty to enrich your enjoyment of what you hear—and what you hear is quite wonderful.

Those who think the art of Verdi singing is dead will be silenced by this disc. Heading the pack is the glorious Leonora of Violetta Urmana. Though she began her career as a mezzo, she first sang the full soprano role of Leonora at Covent Garden in 2004, and by the time this was recorded she had the full measure of the role. Her tone is ravishingly beautiful throughout. Her Act 1 aria is rich and moving, and her prayer outside the monastery is glorious: the rich arc of Deh, non m’abbandonar is truly ecstatic, as is the way she rides over the chorus of monks at the end of Act 2. Her intensely dramatic scene with Guardiano shows desperation giving way to heavenly consolation, while Pace mio Dio convinces that her agony is still there, and she achieves a heavenly pianissimo on her climactic top note. Opposite her is Marcello Giordani making his debut in the killer role of Alvaro. His acting is non-existent, but his singing more than makes up for it. He is ringingly heroic in the Act 1 duet, and he scales the arduous heights of O tu che in seno agli angeli with clarity and focus. Opposite him is a young, exciting Carlo Guelfi as the malevolent Don Alvaro. His voice is clear and noble with impeccable diction, and his acting is surprisingly convincing. We actually feel his character changing as he goes through the whole gamut of emotions in the opening scene of Act 3: Urna fatale even makes us sympathise with him! He sings the part with dark malevolence, but also an understated nobility which matches his character’s misplaced notions of honour. The two men blend magnificently in the three baritone/tenor duets, with Solenne in quest’ora particularly moving. Bruno de Simone’s thunderous bass brings fitting authority to Padre Guardiano, and there is a magisterial grandeur to both his scene with Leonora in Act 2 and the final trio. Gurtseva’s husky mezzo makes Preziosilla sharply distinct from the other character, entirely appropriate for this gypsy outsider. Simone’s antics as Melitone get a bit tedious, but that’s more Verdi’s fault than his. All the comprimario roles are cast from strength, even down to the Mayor and the Doctor. The chorus sing and act most convincingly: they make the move convincingly from raucous gypsies to humble pilgrims in Act 2, and the scene in Army Camp in Act 3 is good fun, enlivened by a full ballet, amongst other things. Their singing contains Italianate conviction and power, as well as inherent musicality.

Over all is the commanding presence of Zubin Mehta in the pit. He conducts a forceful and thrusting account of the overture, especially in the surging strings, and this raises the temperature for a full-blooded, headlong reading that barely lets up all evening. Quite right too! If you’ve heard his classic RCA Trovatore with Price, Domingo and Milnes then you’ll know the excitement that Mehta brings to this kind of music. The orchestra play out of their skin for him and the score crackles with electricity. You can expect the highest standards and not be disappointed.

The DVD production values are very high, though there are no extras. Camera direction is focused and appropriate, barring a couple of rather ridiculous “arty” shots which distract only slightly. The voices sound pretty close in DTS, with a lot of focus on the centre speaker, while the orchestra tend to inhabit the left and right channels. They are never less than clear and you can hear everything that goes on, even some irritating coughs in the quieter moments of O tu che in seno agli angeli.

This, then, is a Forza for our time, and one to come back to again and again. The Leontyne Price/Levine collaboration from the Met on DG will always hold a special place in collector’s hearts, but Urmana is the better actor, and her voice is caught younger and fresher than Price in 1984. There is also an irreplaceable 1958 DVD of Tebaldi, Corelli, Bastianini and Christoff from Naples. It’s like a message coming from another world and is an unforgettable experience, not least for the thrillingly heroic, if endlessly vulgar singing of Corelli, but it’s not really one to return to for repeated viewing. To my mind this set now leads the field and takes its place as one of the great Verdi DVDs. Buy it and revel in it: it deserves to become a classic.

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