R.I.P. La Forza del destino–Part 1.

A while back a tenor friend of mine, Richard Slade, handed me a CD album he’d picked up at a library sale or flea market. “This,” he announced, “is where everything started to go wrong. You want it? It doesn’t need to live in my house.” Since I’d never heard the particular performance, I said “Sure,” and stuck it on a shelf in my house. The performance was the 1976 RCA Victor studio recording of La Forza del destino. The cast: Mmes. L. Price and Cossotto; Messrs. Domingo, Milnes, Giaiotti, and Bacquier, all in good-to-excellent form. The conductor: James Levine, still young and noted for whipping up a batch of Verdi. “If that lineup was around today,” I hear you say, “I’d snatch up a ticket quick.” Well, me too.

Here in New York, we were supposed to get Forza this year. It was scheduled for the current Metropolitan season, to be directed by the controversial Calixto Bieito in his local debut, and conducted by the selfsame Levine, young no longer. But the Forza della borsa turned out to be stronger than that of destino, and the production was cancelled. (I)That, at least, was the ostensible reason. Forza was intended as part of the Met’s production-sharing agreement with English National Opera, which like all such is supposed to be a money-saving arrangement. Since Bieito’s concoction was less than rapturously received in London and Peter Gelb has acknowledged himself chastened for placing conceptual weirdness before the New York public, it’s reasonable to infer that a combination of artistic second thoughts and marketplace terror, rather than budget-busting per se, is the reason for the withdrawal. Forza was replaced, on four nights, by performances of Verdi’s Requiem, in what now seems likely to have been Levine’s last Met appearances.  I’ve been wondering if we shall ever again have Forza, and if so what on earth it will look and sound like. It’s my personal model for what we can’t do any more, though I could well have chosen any of the bigger Verdi pieces, or anything at all of Wagner. But Forza has been my test case since the early 1970s, when I began asking myself if, given my pick from the international pool of singers at or near their vocal primes, two casts could be assembled that would satisfy the work’s basic requirements according to standards that had prevailed fairly recently—in the 1950s, let us say—and had to answer “No.”

Among the basic requirements for La Forza del destino—by which I mean things that are just basic, absolutely required in order to jump the lowest hurdles—the first must be visceral impact. This doesn’t come of sheer loudness, of course. Tonal quality, musical shapeliness, interpretive nuance, and soulfulness must be present in some acceptable portion, onstage and in the pit. But all these will fall short without the straight-from-the-gut energies of heavy-calibre voices in high-functioning condition. Of Verdi’s operas that present the core narrative of 19th-Century opera, that of a protagonist couple seeking the social position of which they are deprived, several (Otello, Don CarloAïda) should probably be rated as artistically superior to Forza. But among those that offer it in naked form (Ernani and Il Trovatore would be the others), it is at once the most artistically mature and the most savage. And its epic embrace, with its story of doomed love and implacable vengeance playing out over long stretches of time and distance and amid vividly set scenes of warfare’s desolations, the survival mechanisms of the common people, and the beneficence of religious refuge, is unique in Verdi’s output.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. That, at least, was the ostensible reason. Forza was intended as part of the Met’s production-sharing agreement with English National Opera, which like all such is supposed to be a money-saving arrangement. Since Bieito’s concoction was less than rapturously received in London and Peter Gelb has acknowledged himself chastened for placing conceptual weirdness before the New York public, it’s reasonable to infer that a combination of artistic second thoughts and marketplace terror, rather than budget-busting per se, is the reason for the withdrawal. Forza was replaced, on four nights, by performances of Verdi’s Requiem, in what now seems likely to have been Levine’s last Met appearances.