You might well expect to hear all manner of unsavory words employed to describe the performance of this or that singer in a Verdi opera, but when's the last time you heard a profanity aimed at the composer himself? For me, it was tonight at the Metropolitan Opera, when during the second intermission a well dressed and clearly disgruntled woman snarled, "This is b______t!" -- the blanks occupied by a common euphemism for a certain bovine byproduct, one that I refrain from repeating only so as to make sure this posting is accessible to the kids in the library.
"It's just a bunch of people standing around, and nothing happens," said patron explained of her annoyance at tonight's offering, Verdi's La Forza del Destino. "It's like a director who can't cut his own film."
Even the most ardent Verdian might have a hard time convincing this particular audience member that Forza is one of the composer's most ambitious creations. Like pretty much everything to which Verdi laid his hand, Forza includes characters readily identifiable as heroes and villains. But here, nothing is particularly clear cut: The hero is an outcast by virtue of ethnicity; the heroine his lover, ready to disgrace the family honor by following her heart, and the villain is her brother, who doggedly pursues the man he believes to have killed his father in an attempt to spirit away his sister.
Complicating the audience's relationship to the piece is the fact that said heroine, the immediately sympathetic Leonora, anchors only the first act of a long opera made longer by extensive set changes; she makes a cameo appearance in the second act, doesn't appear at all in the third and turns up in the fourth just long enough to sing that she wishes she could die -- then promptly does so, at the hand of Don Carlo, her brother, who has been mortally wounded by Don Alvaro, the bosom buddy from the battlefield that turned out to be the half-breed who supposedly seduced his sister and murdered his father -- which, of course, really was an unlikely accident.
Moreover, Leonora, Alvaro and Carlo are only half the equation -- the dramatic trio counterbalanced by the comic trio of hapless peddler Trabuco, gypsy fortune teller Preziosilla and grumpy monk Fra Melitone, each of whom derails a scene or two. And ultimately, none of these characters can claim top billing; Verdi's interest is in the complex web of interconnections that intertwine the lives of these disparate characters and others still. The composer (and poet Francesco Maria Piave) may call it "fate" or "destiny," but in a more agnostic age, we could just as easily call the circumstances of the opera synchronicity. The events of Forza may initially seem like untenable coincidences, but taken in perspective, nothing is so far fetched. It's complicated, but no more so than everyday life -- and certainly less so than the average offering on daytime TV. (And the composer's depiction of racist sentiment -- in Melitone's jokey insinuations as much as Don Carlos's rage -- lends an all-too-current thread to this particular yarn.)
Verdi could certainly have tightened and tidied the sprawl of Forza into a more readily assimilable form, but that wasn't what he was after; instead, the composer wanted to depict the multifaceted stuff of life itself. Musically, moods shift drastically not from act to act but from scene to scene, and sometimes within a single tableau. It's a bold, groundbreaking gambit -- and one Verdi never quite attempted to repeat, although the attention to subtleties here would pay dividends in the masterpieces that followed.
A successful traversal of Forza requires a steady hand at the rudder, and the Met had one in conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Opening with a whirlwind take on the famous overture, Noseda maintained a taut, unindulgent performance -- which made felicities such as a magnificent lead clarinet and a breathtakingly ethereal conclusion stand out all the more. As Leonora, Deborah Voigt sang radiantly; if her voice, like her figure, has trimmed down a size or so, Voigt's physical inhabitation of the role (particularly as she dashed out across the stage at the beginning of Act Two) afforded a performance complete in every respect. Salvatore Licitra, uneven in previous Met encounters, satisfied on the whole tonight; the more tragic Don Alvaro's circumstance, the richer and more resplendent his voice became, with his "Le minaccie, i fieri accenti" in Act Four a particular triumph. Mark Delavan, a ebony-voiced Don Carlo, executed an Olympic-caliber swan dive from guarded anger to pointed suspicion and finally inchoate obsession, delivering the most unalloyed gold-medal performance of the evening.
As for the comic trio, Juan Pons was a charmingly belligerent, beleagured Fra Melitone. Ildikó Komlósi's Preziosilla, while not especially scene-stealing, cut through the massed voices in Acts Two and Three; Tony Stevenson's Trabuco -- a Tracey Walter role, for sure -- could have used more physical presence and vocal juice. And as Padre Guardiano, the holy man who arguably bridges the gaps between all of the other characters, a noble Samuel Ramey mustered a physical and vocal heft worthy of the composer's representative for the voice of God. Or fate, or destiny, or synchronicity. Take your pick.
King Crimson - Mirrors (Wild Bird bootleg, Rome 11/13/73)
King Crimson - The Return of the Crimson King (Chapter One bootleg, Frankfurt 11/3/73)
King Crimson - Trilogy, Parts 1 & 2 (Moonchild bootlegs, Paris 4/4/73)
Giuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino - Maria Callas, Richard Tucker, Carlo Tagliabue, La Scala Milan/Tullio Serafin (EMI Classics)
Album - Microbricolages (Delhotel)
King Crimson - Palazzo Della Sport, Brescia, March 20, 1974 and Jahnhalle, Pforzheim, March 31, 1974 (DGMLive.com authorized FLAC downloads)