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Baltimore's Forza del Destino

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, The Fates smile on BOC's 'Forza' (Baltimore Sun, October 8)

Cecelia Porter, In Baltimore, Breathing New Life Into Verdi's 'La Forza' (Washington Post, October 8)
There is superstitious fear of Verdi's La Forza del Destino in the opera world, a history of hysteria summed up nicely by Tim Smith (Baltimore Opera tests superstition, September 30) for the Baltimore Sun. It did not stop Baltimore Opera from mounting the piece, which charms the ears from the mournful opening theme of its overture. Just don't whistle that theme in the wings of an opera theater. (After the melody was used so beautifully in the French film Jean de Florette, it is now associated with European farmers by advertisers.) You may laugh at the curse of Forza, but on Saturday night, it was the overture that fell victim to it, as your reviewer was made late by every possible traffic delay possible on the trip to Baltimore and heard only the last few chords of it.

What passes for the plot in Forza is nothing more than a series of improbabilities: Spanish girl loves Incan man (no kidding), man accidentally shoots girl's father, girl flees to monastery to become a hermit, man becomes blood brother with girl's brother unbeknownst to either of them, brother tracks down girl, man kills brother, brother kills sister. Ángel de Saavedra first came up with this crazy story in his play Don Álvaro o La fuerza del sino, which Francesca Maria Piave managed to whip into a libretto that inspired Verdi. (The opera was premiered in St. Petersburg, of all places, in the 1860s, and Don Alvaro originally threw himself off a cliff, just for good measure.) The only reason to mount this opera is for the music, generally good and occasionally exquisite, that Verdi created. Why then would anyone ask Paolo Miccichè to direct it? Washingtonians will remember Miccichè from such other productions with too many scrims and flashing animations as Norma, Aida, I Vespri Siciliani, and last season's Macbeth.

Miccichè began with sketches that Nicola Benois made for a production of Forza at La Scala in the 1940s. Benois's vision was of a cosmic struggle that envelops the doomed proceedings on stage: angels grapple with demons and the hooded specter of death in a maelstrom of color. Large versions of the sketches hover on the projection screen at the back of the stage, as well as on scrims that descend and ascend, at some points in three distracting sections. Rather than adding anything to the listener's understanding of the opera, other than a history lesson in the staging of operas at La Scala, the production mostly just blocks the singers from view. Not much was left over for the sets either, such as they were, although the costumes (designed by Alberto Spiazzi) were pretty, if arch-traditional. Washington National Opera has not mounted Forza since 1989: let us hope that talks are not already in progress to bring this production to the Kennedy Center.

The singers, however, are worth the trip to Baltimore, especially at the generally lower ticket prices. Soprano Giovanna Casolla returned to Baltimore as Leonora, hardly a young thing anymore and with a few odd vocal tics, but she had a spectacular scene with the Father Superior and chorus of monks (called Franciscans in the program but costumed as Dominicans) in La Vergine degli angeli. Tenor Antonello Palombi gave an impassioned reading of Oh, tu che in seno agli angeli and was in full voice and mostly on target. Fine supporting work came from mezzo-soprano Jessie Raven (last reviewed in the Pittsburgh Ring cycle in 2005) in the thankless role of Preziosilla (what was going on with the lighting during the Rataplan?) and bass Daniel Lewis Williams as the Father Superior. The production is dedicated to soprano Rosa Ponselle, who made her extraordinary debut appearance as Leonora, with Enrico Caruso at the Met in 1918. As Baltimore Opera's one-time artistic director, Ponselle brought Forza to the company in 1957, and it has been offered in honor of the ten-year birthday anniversaries of Ponselle, who was born in 1897. Happy 110th to La Ponselle!

Rosa Ponselle, La vergine degli angeli (audio only),
from Verdi, La Forza del Destino (recorded in 1928, with Ezio Pinza)

Baltimore Opera will give three more performances of La Forza del Destino, on Wednesday (October 10, 7:30 pm), Friday (October 12, 8:15 pm), and Sunday (October 14, 3 pm).

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