If I had to name a favorite Verdi opera, it would have to
be his La forza del destino. This opera moves me like no
other among his works. I realize that some others -
Falstaff, Don Carlo, Otello - are considered to have a
greater unity between text and music. But Forza has the
strongest emotional pull. The story may be pure
opera-illogico of the soap variety, but the emotions
expressed within the dilemmas of the characters are
powerful, moving. It is among the gloomiest of Verdi's
operas, tense, brooding, morbid. Classic themes of thwarted
love and revenge. But there's also spirit, quirkiness
(Preziosilla, Melitone), and perhaps most significantly for
me, profound spirituality. The second scene in the second
act is one of the most inspired from Verdi, one I go back
to with eager familiarity. The "Madre, Madre pietosa
Vergine" is a peerless expression of pleading for mercy and
devotional fervor, with the monks' backing chorus creating
a truly haunting effect. Nothing is more beautiful than
that section beginning "Ah! que'sublimi cantici..." (and we
are treated again later to the equally ravishing "La
Vergine degli angeli"). The long duet with Guardiano and
Leonora is an amazing piece of writing, one of the best
musical "dialogues" for soprano and bass; usually these
"father/child" duets are boring, but this scene,
imaginative, urgent and detailed, is powerful drama. One
passage I love in this is the prelude to "Il santo nome di
Dio signore," where there is a long solo for organ; it
achieves pure magic with a lone violin, on high, intoning
the "Deh, non m'abbandonar" melody. The contrast between
the organ and violin produces an ethereal, eerie effect.
This is by far some of the most raptly spiritual music
Verdi ever wrote. And, of course, there's "Pace, pace mio
Abetting my enjoyment of the opera is the mid-fifties
recording of it put out by Decca/London, conducted by
Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. It may not be the most "of
the theater" performance of the opera, but it is one of the
greatest overall casts ever assembled on a Verdi recording.
At any time. At least I think so. Here's who we get:
Renata Tebaldi, Giulietta Simoonato, Mario del Monaco,
Ettore Bastianini, Cesare Siepi and Fernando Corena. All
huge voices, all healthy, robust; true Verdi voices,
stylists. All in their resplendent prime. All ITALIAN.
Nothing else like that for ages. And ages.
In my estimation, Leonora was Tebaldi's best Verdi role,
and perhaps the best Leonora of the last several decades.
The voice and manner sound so ineffably, authentically
"right." Don't tell me she's under the pitch in some of
the highest notes: IT DOESN'T MATTER. Pedigreed Verdi
singing of this nature is extinct. The full-bodied
softness, the exquisite diction, the comet-like soaring -
it doesn't get better than this. Her "Madre, madre
pietosa Vergine" is one I listen to the most. The rhythmic
urgency, the fullness of tone - and she sounds as if she's
really talking to God. And I feel; only a devout Roman
Catholic could possibly understand the religious piety of
Leonora, and it's especially important here. With Verdi
and Tebaldi, you Believe. You better believe it.
Hearing del Monaco and Bastianini just effortlessly plunge
their hearts and voices in their music and duets is the
sweetest sound to my ears: they fence as only Italian
uomini can do, and moreover, exhibit not a whiff of stress
doing so. Immense, powerful sounds. Bastianini's "Urna
fatale" is close to being my favorite rendition of the
aria; there is a beautifully imparted bittersweetness to
the voice, a smarting irony that goes right to the heart.
Del Monaco is not all just his usual glorious fire and
brass; "O, tu che in seno agli angeli" has as much
sensitivity as you could want - and are going to get - from
a "confident" Italian tenor.
Simionato rips through an ungrateful killer of a role with
utter nonchalance and great spirit; "Al suon del tamburo"
and "Rataplan"are both a bitch of pieces to sing,
requiring the mezzo to skip up and down nimbly, but
Simionato just laughs merrily through it all. She makes it
sound like a piece of cake.
Siepi delivers the best sung Guardiano of any on record
that I know of. So many magical sections come to mind
immediately: "Venite fidente alla croce...", "Sull'alba il
piede all'eremo", "Il santo nome di Dio signore", "Non
imprecare umiliati" ~~ no other Guardiano has a voice so
beautifully resonant, so well placed, and such consummate
ease with this complex music. So many basses rumble
portentously through this music so that they sound like
gassy, juddering old farts, but Siepi just caresses the ear
constantly, and not just with the sound. He traverses
easily through the difficult writing; listen to how he
manages in the final trio the line `d'ira e furor
sacrilego, non proferir parola; vedi, vedi quest'angiol
vola al trono del Signor.' This section zips up and down
the voice's range, and requires supreme breath control, and
security at either ends of the range. Most basses are
gasping for leverage here, but not Siepi. In fact, he sings
this role with such ease, he's often accused of sounding
uninvolved. Ha. Listen to the way he and Corena, in their
long and legendary partnership, spark each other in the
duet with Melitone and Guardiano.
Others versions I like: the rediscovered 1958 Napoli
performance on video (but Christoff is an unidiomatic major
blot for me). Tebaldi even greater. The young Corelli.
Bastianini. Oralia Dominguez. A priceless document.
(Leontyne is in the 1984 MET performance).
The 1953 Mitropoulos from Firenze. Tebaldi ferociously
intense. Siepi again great. Protti so-so. Barbieri,
Barbieri. Del monaco more sensitive than on Decca.
Mitropoulos - slow tempi, but dramatic.