Yesterday the Bavarian State Opera streamed a live performance of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. The cast was headed by Jonas Kaufmann’s impersonation of Don Alvaro, one of the most challenging tenor roles in the standard operatic repertory. The quality of the streaming was excellent. I watched the show on a 69″ HD TV and ran the sound through an external system – both picture and music were outstanding.
The performance itself was interesting. The production was pretty much what you’d expect from a German house. The dress was modern and much of the action took place on top of a table or worse underneath it. Poor Kaufmann had to start his great third act aria lying face down under that omnipresent table. After he was wounded later in the same act he was plopped on top of it. The opera started with the Calatrava family having dinner at the table. But considering what European directors are capable of, the production was pretty tame. An interesting conceit was to have Don Carlo as a child complete with Buddy Holly glasses witness his father’s death. When he appeared in the scene at Inn he was still wearing the glasses. Thereafter they disappeared. The table also appeared in the Monastery scene.
But Forza is all about the music. Budden in his definitive commentary on Forza says it’s a conductor’s opera. And the conducting was the main problem, though there were others, with this production. Asher Fisch has no feeling for Verdi. His conducting was lethargic, torpid, lifeless, and too damn slow. He had good singers, but he just beat time. Even if he’d had the most idiomatic Verdians, which he didn’t, they couldn’t have overcome his inert baton.
Jonas Kaufmann is an outstanding tenor, perhaps the best the world currently has. He sang with feeling. His phrasing was tasteful and intelligently conceived. His voice is dark, has baritonal overtones, and has the size needed for the great Verdi roles. His use of filatura is outstanding. He is a fine artist, but Alvaro needs fire, passion, and abandon – and this he did not sufficiently provide. I don’t know if his temperament will ever allow him to meet the demands Verdi makes on the tenor in this opera. Here is La vita è inferno all’infelice…O tu che seno agli angeli from yesterday’s performance; judge for yourself. It’s very good, but it lacks the fire and steel that Richard Tucker, the best Alvaro I ever heard, brought to the role. See below for more on this.
Forza has three great tenor-baritone duets, each longer and more passionate than the one that proceeds it. They’re below. The baritone is the French singer Ludovic Tézier. He has a pleasant baritone that’s bright enough for the part but which I suspect would not be sizable enough for a big house. He’s sung 34 performances at the Met, but no Verdi there. He eschewed all the high notes typically offered by the great Verdi baritones who sing Don Carlo. Each of these duets is an inspired example of how to write for tenor and baritone. Like Brahms, Verdi requires the singer to grasp his intent and add some his own personality to the notes. You almost have to be Italian to fully get their messages across. Some American singers seem to have achieved honorary Italian status with respect to Verdi’s passion and sweep. Again, see below.
German soprano Anja Harteros was Leonora. She has an excellent lyric soprano which is better suited for La Traviata, which she has sung at the Met, than the heavier requirements of Leonora. Nevertheless, she was fine as long as you weren’t expecting the lush tones and floated pianissimos that the part requires to be fully realized. Below is the great soprano-bass duet from the second act in which Leonora successfully argues with Padre Guardiano for a place of refuge from the pursuit of her murderous brother. The Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow has also sung this part at the Met. Act 2 duet.This duet is unlike anything Verdi had yet written; indeed, it’s unlike almost anything anyone ever wrote. Budden devotes 5 pages to it’s analysis. “The two characters remain on different planes. There is no personal relationship between them.” The melodic invention and dramatic representation is breathtaking. Here is the masterful hymn which concludes the act. La Vergine degli angeli
Finally, here is Harteros version of Pace pace mio Dio, followed by the glorious trio that concludes the opera. Non imprecare, umiliati. In summary, this was a good performance of one of opera’s greatest masterpieces. A work with melody and drama that can only be matched by a few other opera’s by the same composer. The singing was quite good, while the conducting was not.
As promised above, here is a video of Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill singing the last part of the opera’s final duet. Tucker interpolates a few high notes, the second vieni which he takes up makes a great effect. He always did this. Merrill’s thunderous finalmente when he thinks Alvaro is ready to fight is exactly what Verdi wanted. The clip is from the 1972 farewell gala for Rudolph Bing at the Met. Both singers were past their primes, but they have the passion and expression that Verdi demands. How two boys from Brooklyn acquired this skill is a mystery.