Verdi La forza del destino
It is appropriate that the first recording of the first version of Forza should come from St Petersburg, where the work had its premiere in 1862. However, whilst the premiere was predominantly an Italian affair, this set is given entirely by Russian artists. The differences between this version and Verdi’s 1869 revision for La Scala are marked: they are delineated by two essays in the accompanying booklet but even more discerningly in Julian Budden’s indispensable The Operas of Verdi (in this case Vol. 2, Cassell: 1978). So it isn’t necessary for me to rehearse here all the changes (even if I had the space to do so), only the main ones.
The first concerns the omission of the famous overture, replaced here by a short Prelude. The second affects the complete reworking of the final scenes of Act 3, which now has the Alvaro-Carlo duo following, rather than preceding, the encampment scene with Trabuco, Melitone (his sermon) and Preziosilla (Rataplan), 1862 lengthening the former with an aria for Alvaro (second disc, track 15) that further adds to the already taxing part for the tenor. The third relates to the work’s finale, in which the Alvaro-Carlo duel takes place on stage and Alvaro commits suicide rather than surviving, as in 1869. There are many other, more minor alterations. By and large I agree with Budden when he comments that “there is not a change in the revision which is not an improvement”, but none the less applaud Philips and St Petersburg for giving us the chance to hear the opera in its original form, thus including much previously unrecorded music.
And most thanks are due to Gergiev for making us aware all through of the score’s dramatic eloquence, its marvels of instrumentation, its subtlety of characterization in a reading that has one eagerly anticipating each scene. His timing of episodes as a whole and numbers within them is well-nigh faultless, as is his judgement when moving forward to climactic points. He is inestimably aided by his own orchestra’s tautly fashioned playing and by the singing of his chorus, rich and incisive in the Russian manner, although once or twice not exact in ensemble (“La vergine degli angeli”, second disc, track 6, is a case in point).
Several of the singers are now familiar from recordings and live performances, by the company, of Russian opera. How would they fare in Verdi? The answer is, by and large, splendidly, four of the five principals enjoying the weight of voice and command of the appropriate style to make their roles tell. On her recital disc, Gorchakova has already given us a taste of the Leonora (Philips, 3/96). Here, as there, she evinces the weight of voice, also the broad sweep of tone and line, that her solos demand. Added to that there is a feeling for dramatic situation. “Pace, pace”, for instance is suitably filled with foreboding, the lustrous, dark timbre recalling that of Ponselle – and there can be no higher praise. Just once or twice, at the top, the voice becomes a shade strident and ideally one wants more pointed articulation of the text – how familiar is that complaint today in opera singers’ performances! – but it is an interpretation of formidable achievement.
Grigorian is an exciting Alvaro; I can think of no other tenor today, and few in the past, who could fulfil the exacting demands of the part as easily as he does: the confident spinto thrust in the voice is just right. He effortlessly rises to the generosity of phrase the role calls for and fills the many elegiac phrases with the feeling of melancholy they need. Only Bergonzi for Gardelli surpasses him by virtue of more idiomatic Italian and a finer line, but the superiority is slight and Bergonzi doesn’t have to contend with the added music of 1862. Grigorian finds a worthy adversary in Putilin’s Carlo. At present Russia seems to have an almost endless supply of baritones. Putilin need fear no comparisons even with the admirable Cappuccilli on the Gardelli set. Although, like his predecessors and coevals in the role, he is shy of following Verdi’s dynamic markings, in other respects his refulgent baritone is just the instrument for Carlo and he breathes the right fire in his implacable hatred of his imagined enemy Alvaro. With two such fiery exponents, having voices that easily blend, their three encounters receive their full due, most of all the third, in Act 4, where Grigorian’s almost saintly restraint contrasts ideally with Putilin’s angry imprecations, mirroring those characteristics in Verdi’s magnificent writing hereabouts, common to both versions.
Borodina easily encompasses the high-lying (for a mezzo) demands of Preziosilla and sounds the right seductive and martial notes for her role. The one disappointment is the singing of the veteran Kit, who sounds grey and woolly, with no real centre to his tone, not the voice to exert the dignity and authority of Padre Guardiano. As the humorous element in Verdi’s mix, Zastavny seems at first a shade faceless but as his part progresses, one begins to admire the fact that it is being sung truly, not guyed, which makes his sermon (second disc, track 12) seem a proper successor to the monologues of Rigoletto and Macbeth, albeit in a comic vein, as Verdi intended it to be. In the soup-serving scene, he captures nicely Verdi’s reversion to buffo opera style, enunciating the text with the brio of a native-born Italian. The minor parts are well done.
The many benefits of the set are enhanced by a recording in the best Philips tradition, voices immediately presented in an overall sound picture that has strong impact. This is a set of an alternative version to stand alongside the Gardelli (1869 version of course) as a recommendation for this opera on disc.'