Yesterday was a good rainy night in, so we settled down to watch Verdi's La Forza del Destino on Met Player.
La Forza isn't performed all that often. Its page in our database shows just one production coming up next year, at the Vienna Staatsoper, compared to the usual wall-to-wall La Traviata and Rigoletto and several of lesser known works like Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth. I can't understand why: for my money, it's got the greatest opera overture ever written, packed with memorable themes that are then woven into the fabric of the music in the rest of the opera. It even has its place in popular culture, with one of the main themes having been used for the classic French movie Jean de Florette (improbably scored for chromatic harmonica and played by the incomparable Toots Thielemans) and thence finding its way into British beer commercials for Stella Artois. The plot is the usual Verdi mix: standard operatic melodrama to keep the censors happy coupled with some underlying hard edges for anywhere who cares to look a bit closer: in La Forza, these are about racism, family bigotry and superstition.
The performance on Met Player dates from 1984, conducted by a very young-looking James Levine. The first thing that's unmissable is Levine's energy - big hair, flailing arms and a death-defying tempo as he races through the overture. The TV direction and editing has been done by someone who knew the music very well: every cut is perfectly in place to the bit of the orchestra that you want to see for that particular moment in the music.
When the curtain goes up, we find Leontyne Price as Our Heroine Leonora. Price's voice is in tremendous, authoritative form. It's a big, rounded voice, without a hint of harshness, quite unlike anyone I know who's singing today - something like hearing a baritone an octave or two up. The rest of the cast are in equally sparkling form, with Leo Nucci a suitably malevolent Don Carlo, and the show stolen by a young and gorgeous Isola Jones as the gypsy Preziosilla, looking for all the world as if she's just stepped in from the set of Carmen (which later became her "signature role", according to her agent's bio). The other characters are excellently sung, from Our Hero to the ill-fated father to the dodgy friar.
OK, so the acting is a bit wooden - more of a series of tableaux than any attempt at actually portraying the characters. But Verdi's music comes up trumps, making the performance a truly memorable one: this is an opera that ought to be performed a lot more often. At $3.99 a throw for a night's rental, I think it's a steal!
6th December 2009
P. S. If you don't have the Internet setup for Met Player, this performance is also available on DVD: