24 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (G. Brouwenstijn, R. Tucker, A. Protti, N. Scott, M. Dunn; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La forza del destino—Gré Brouwenstijn (Leonora), Richard Tucker (Don Alvardo), Aldo Protti (Don Carlo di Vargas), Norman Scott (Padre Guardiano), Mignon Dunn (Preziosilla), Mario Verazzi (Marchese di Calatrava), Giulio Viamonte (Fra Melitone), Růžena Horáková (Curra), Victorio Bacciato (Un alcade), Virgilio Tavini (Mastro Trabucco), Guerrino Boschetti (Un chirurgo); Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Colón; Fernando Previtali, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 12 August 1960; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310; 2 CDs, 152:26; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is hardly surprising that an opera house named in honor of Cristoforo Colombo should have to its credit an adventurous history. If its namesake unknowingly perpetrated a colossal blunder when in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue and landed not in the East but in the West Indies, the occupants of the Teatro Colón have achieved a far higher rate of accuracy in reaching the intended destinations of their operatic voyages. In the ​first seven decades of the Twentieth Century, following the inauguration of the present auditorium in 1908, many of the world's greatest voices regularly filled the extraordinary space​ of the Teatro Colón. Drawn to the theatre in the 1930s by the tireless industriousness and genius of the company's Music Director—and naturalized Argentine—Erich Kleiber, their presence made Buenos Aires a south-of-the-Equator Mecca for performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The music of Giuseppe Verdi also flourished along the banks of the Río de la Plata, perhaps never more memorably than in the performance of La forza del destino on 12 August 1960. Recordings of this performance have circulated on small labels for years, but Walhall Eternity Series’ edition enables greater appreciation of the Teatro Colón’s legendary acoustics and places the listener to a prime seat in the stalls for what in 1960 might have been a typical Forza del destino but in 2015 is a sensational one.

This 1960 performance subjected Verdi’s scores to the cuts that were standard at that time, but uncut performances of La forza del destino remain at least as rare as good ones. Paced by Fernando Previtali with the cumulative dramatic impetus familiar from his RCA [later issued by DECCA] studio recording, the performance bristles with danger and daring. Having studied in his native Italy with noted composer Franco Alfano, now best known—rather unfairly—for having completed the final scene of Puccini’s Turandot, and the gifted conductor Vittorio Gui, Maestro Previtali followed in Erich Kleiber’s footsteps during the 1960s as the Teatro Colón’s Music Director. In this performance, the theatre’s choral and orchestral forces follow his beat committedly, launching the opera with an energizing account of its celebrated Overture. Thereafter, choristers and instrumentalists respond to both Maestro Previtali’s and Verdi’s demands with concentration and conviction, and the sound quality of the recording is adequate to permit admiration for the results that they achieve.

​A particular hallmark of ​the Teatro Colón’s productions in the 1950s and '60s was, to the extent that can be discerned from broadcasts and pirated recordings of the period, their amalgamations of the ranks of local artists with the rosters of visiting ‘star’ singers in coherent casts that frequently possessed the now-defunct camaraderie of a true company. Like Sir Rudolf Bing at the contemporaneous MET, Teatro Colón management fostered the refinement of native-born talent, capitalizing on the boons of wartime immigration to Argentina. In this performance, the singers of supporting rôles highlight the great success of the Teatro Colón in surrounding principals with voices of quality that enhanced the impact of a production. A frequent participant in Buenos Aires performances of this vintage, Guerrino Boschetti is in this Forza del destino a thoroughly capable Surgeon, his brief part sung solidly, and Victorio Bacciato is similarly effective as the Alcade. The muleteer Mastro Trabuco receives from Virgilio Tavini a broadly charming portrayal, and Mario Verazzi is a firm-toned, suitably gruff Marchese di Calatrava whose exchanges with his impressionable daughter suggest true paternal concern. Růžena Horáková has less to do as Curra but is no less involved with her rôle or successful in making her mark on the performance.

Throughout a long and fascinating career, Tennessee-born mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn was one of opera’s most versatile artists. In 1983, she was a thrillingly authoritative Laura in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the MET, and four years later she was a stirring La Cieca in the same opera—a rôle that she also sang in New York in the early years of her career—in Chicago, where she gave an outstanding account of the famed ‘Voce di donna.’ She was capable of snatching the laurels away from Manrico and Leonora as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, seeming to scorch the ground upon which she walked as Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and fully inhabiting the bizarre domain of the Amme in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Singing Preziosilla in Buenos Aires, she leaves a memorable impression. As performed at the Colón, Preziosilla’s only real opportunity to engage the audience is in the Act Two scene ‘Al suon del tamburo,’ but Ms. Dunn seizes it with the sure grasp of a consummate stage animal. Dramatically, she brings more dignity to Preziosilla than many singers have done: vocally, she enriches the performance with singing even finer than the music merits.

The resident Franciscans, Fra Melitone and Padre Guardiano, are sung with contrasting wit and world-weariness by Giulio Viamonte and Norman Scott. In this performance, the two characters are more than usually depicted as competing facets of a single archetype, conforming with Verdi’s oft-documented distrust of clergy and the Church. Mr. Viamonte’s singing of Melitone’s ‘Auf!... Pazienza non v'ha che basti’ in Act Four is amusing without being marred by excessive foolishness. Tragically, Mr. Scott’s career was ended by his death at the age of forty-seven only eight years after this performance. Here, his singing of Padre Guardiano displays what a loss his untimely passing was to opera. In his scenes in Act Two, he envelops Guardiano’s music with burnished, steady tone, comforting Leonora and placating his brethren. His phrasing of ‘Sull'alba il piede all'eremo’ and ‘Il santo nome’ is magisterial, and the humanity of his voicing of ‘Non imprecare; umiliati’ in Act Four heightens the tension of the opera’s conclusion. Memorably portrayed by great basses including Tancredi Pesaro, Ezio Pinza, Giulio Neri, Jerome Hines, Boris Christoff, and Cesare Siepi, Padre Guardiano is one of the most difficult of Verdi’s bass rôles to bring off with dramatic credibility: Mr. Scott manages to do so while also singing the music expertly.

Cremona-born baritone Aldo Protti celebrated his fortieth birthday less than a month before this performance, which found him on career-best vocal form. His experience in La forza del destino included performances opposite the Leonoras of Renata Tebaldi, Leyla Gencer, and Anita Cerquetti, and in this performance his ​Don Carlo di Vargas is again a sonorous brother to a delicate, womanly Leonora. Mr. Protti brings unflagging strength to ‘Son Pereda, son ricco d'onore’ in Act Two, and his Carlo joins Alvaro in a thrilling performance of ‘Solenne in quest’ora.’ Carlo’s great aria in Act Three, ‘Urna fatale del mio destino,’ is sung with ringing tone, and the subsequent ‘È salvo! oh gioia immensa’ erupts with vigor and irony. Especially in America, where his nine performances as a member of the Metropolitan Opera company twenty-five years after this Buenos Aires La forza del destino were all as Rigoletto, Mr. Protti was overshadowed by Leonard Warren, Ettore Bastianini, Robert Merrill, and, in the latter days of his career, Sherrill Milnes. This performance exhibits the level of singing of which Mr. Protti was capable: first-rate diction, firm, virile tone and magnificent high notes make his Carlo an impersonation worthy of comparison with the best ever recorded.

​Richard Tucker sang Don Alvaro at the Metropolitan Opera in February and March 1960 alongside Leonie Rysanek, Lucine Amara, and Renata Tebaldi, including the ill-starred 4 March performance in which Leonard Warren died on the MET stage, and returned to the rôle at the Colón in August 1961, when his Leonora was Floriana Cavalli, and at the MET in the 1961 - '62 Season, partnered by Eileen Ferrell, Mary Curtis-Verna, and Lucine Amara. Having also recorded the part in studio opposite both Maria Callas and Leontyne Price and shared the stage with perhaps the greatest Leonora of the Twentieth Century, Zinka Milanov, Mr. Tucker was a veteran Alvaro who knew his way round the music and the drama. He is an ardent lover in Act One, his singing of ‘Ah, per sempre, o mio bell'angiol’ phrased with fervor. Not surprisingly, however, the pinnacle of his performance is his account of Alvaro’s aria in Act Three, ‘O tu che in seno agli angeli.’ The Italianate morbidezza of Mr. Tucker’s voicing of the aria—one of Verdi’s most difficult—is gripping, his unsubtle but logical phrasing lending the aria tremendous theatrical power. He also spars excitingly with Mr. Protti’s Carlo in ‘Solenne in quest'ora,' as well as in their confrontation in Act Four, ‘Le minacce, i fieri accenti.’ Despite the importance of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation to opera in the United States, beyond the great tenor’s native shores his name, never as familiar to non-American ears as those of del Monaco, Corelli, and Bergonzi, seems in danger of being forgotten. The singer capable of portraying an Alvaro as riveting as the one who dominates the performance on these discs should be honored in every heart and household where opera finds a home.

​Unlike her Don Alvaro in this performance, who was from the time of his MET début​ in 1945 until his death in 1975 a powerful presence in Verdi rôles, Gré Brouwenstijn is best remembered not for her work in Italian repertory but for her Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and her Wagnerian portrayals at Bayreuth and elsewhere. At London's Royal Opera House, however, she was acclaimed as Aida (the rôle of her Covent Garden début), Leonora in Il trovatore (in which part she was first heard at the Holland Festival), Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Desdemona in Otello, and Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo. Never heard at the MET, Ms. Brouwenstijn was introduced to America by performances with San Francisco Opera and in Chicago, where she sang the title rôle of Janáček's Jenůfa, and she was particularly appreciated in her native Netherlands as Puccini's Tosca. Though she lacked the mesmerizing pianissimi of Milanov and the opulent tones of Tebaldi, Ms. Brouwenstijn's effectiveness as Leonora in La forza del destino is confirmed by both this performance and an existing recording of a 1962 performance in which she held her own against another American Don Alvaro, Jan Peerce. In Buenos Aires, her singing in Act One is distinguished by a beguiling femininity, Leonora’s tense conversation with her father, the Marchese, juxtaposing the character’s initial timidity with burgeoning resolve. She phrases ‘Me pellegrina ed orfana’ with grace, and she is a rare Leonora who sounds both grief-stricken over her father’s death and consumed by love for Alvaro. The sincerity with which Ms. Brouwenstijn limns Leonora’s repentance in Act Two is very touching, and she unravels threads of shimmering tone in ‘Se voi scacciate questa pentita’ and the inexpressibly beautiful ‘La vergine degli angeli.’ Though so much exquisite music comes before it, the great test of any Leonora’s credentials is her Act Four aria ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio; cruda sventura,’ and in this performance it is a trial from which Ms. Brouwenstijn emerges triumphant. The relative leanness of her timbre is a decided asset, permitting greater mobility in Verdi’s arching melodic lines than heavier voices can manage. There are depths of tenderness and tranquil acceptance in Ms. Brouwenstijn’s singing of the opera’s final scene. She is a singer who is expected to always be effective in whichever rôle she happens to be singing, but in this performance she is far more than that: she is a Leonora of azure-hued Dutch porcelain rather than boldly-colored Murano glass, but she shares with Caniglia, Milanov, Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price the ability to extract from Verdi’s music the marrow of a hauntingly alluring characterization.

La forza del destino is a difficult score. Its plot is often in danger of seeming trite, but in the hands of singers and conductors who take their parts at face value, trusting Verdi rather than seeking external, anachronistic psychological contexts for the opera, it can prove to be one of the composer’s most ravishingly poignant creations. Certainly, the music is sublime, and it is the quality of the music that is most apparent in this performance from the Teatro Colón. Facing ferocious competition from studio recordings and famous broadcasts, this may not be a ‘desert island’ Forza del destino, but it is one that shames the poor singing, lackluster conducting, and sorry production values of too many of today’s performances of the opera. Clichéd as the assertion may seem, this is a performance of La forza del destino that throbs with a genuine distillation of the force of destiny.

IN REVIEW: American bass NORMAN SCOTT, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón's LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, photographed as Colline in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Sedge LeBlang, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Glorious Guardiano: American bass Norman Scott, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón’s 1960 La forza del destino, photographed as Colline in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 [Photo credited to Louis Mélançon but seemingly the work of Sedge LeBlang, © The Metropolitan Opera]