R.I.P. La Forza del destino–Part 2.

Settling in to do my listening for this week’s entry, I jotted down some impressions from the first scene of our “problem opera,” one of a number that’s now on the verge of being a problem no more (see last post). Of the Leonora, Zinka Milanov, I noted the presence of an easy, natural-sounding chest voice on even casual low phrases of the opening recitative (the D naturals at “decidermi non so” and “scendevanmi“), enabling these syllables to drop out into the auditorium, at once present yet conversational. I doubt I would have given this a thought in the seasons when I actually saw her in the role; I would have taken it for granted. Then, as the wonderful ensuing aria, “Me pellegrina ed orfana,” wound its way, I made sure to mark how the voice shaped the line on a cushioned messa di voce, from which her seemingly instinctive accenting emerged without fuss, and which led the arcs of phrases, and finally of the whole aria, to their destinations—”this,” I wrote, “in addition to the beautiful quality, here at peak.” Of her Alvaro, Mario del Monaco, I observed that the “darkling, bronzed timbre” (a brooding, rim-of-the-volcano quality especially apt for this role, as for Otello), was “at its freshest & best.” Then I also scribbled: “The faults of ea. we used to complain about.” I wasn’t writing about Milanov’s studio recording of Forza (RCA Victor, 1958), or Del Monaco’s either (Decca/London, 1955), or of a hot night at the Met or La Scala or a summer festival, but of a composite of two evenings in the March of 1953, in New Orleans (VAIA 1252-3, issued in 2005).

This Big Easy Forza is one of three live performances from the ’50s I decided to focus on as I try to memorialize this season’s Met production that wasn’t, and summon something of the impact the work once had with reasonable regularity. Another is the video (also released as audio-only) of a March, 1958 performance at the San Carlo in Naples. There, the Leonora was Renata Tebaldi and the Alvaro was Franco Corelli. The third (audio only) is from May, 1953 at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, and has Tebaldi and Del Monaco together, as they often were in those years.

When the San Carlo video was pulled from the RAI archives in 1994, Will Crutchfield wrote about it in the New York Times. It’s the sort of piece that, in its willingness to assume of its readers a thirst for, or at least a tolerance of, expert evaluation, has vanished from our mainstream press as surely as the level of performance it describes has vanished from our opera houses. (I)Curiously, this assumption still obtains to a degree in the Times‘ coverage of dance (I’m thinking particularly of ballet). There, the readership is still credited with an interest in how dancers dance, in the specific personal qualities of dancers, and in the relationship between technique and a work’s expressive potential. Why in dance and not in opera? Your guess is probably not even as good as mine. As I did with my “faults of ea.” notation, Will concedes early on the reservations one must have about the performance if one is applying the highest standard. They are not insignificant. But then he goes on: “If you’re over 50 [remember, this is 1994] and think you might be romanticizing your memories; if you’re young and think the old-timers are just trying to intimidate you with their stories . . . and, especially, if the beauty of the human voice means a lot to youget the video.” And later: “[watching it] . . . is likely to blow away the optimism we all try to feel about Verdian singers doing pretty well after all these days . . . ” (The complete article is accessible at http://www.nytimes/1994 , and well worth a scan.)

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. Curiously, this assumption still obtains to a degree in the Times‘ coverage of dance (I’m thinking particularly of ballet). There, the readership is still credited with an interest in how dancers dance, in the specific personal qualities of dancers, and in the relationship between technique and a work’s expressive potential. Why in dance and not in opera? Your guess is probably not even as good as mine.