Friday, November 18, 2005

La Forza del Destino, San Francisco Opera

To Forza last night, where I was pleasantly surprised. I had thought the old warhorse not too stageworthy, based mostly on recordings, a video, that Kirov broadcast of the 1862 St. Petersburg version, the libretto, and the opera's reputation. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's never been any doubt about the greatness of much of the music. and this production, at least, works quite well.

A major reason is the fantastic conducting of Nicola Luisotti, debuting at SFO, who led a taut, impassioned, nuanced, and completely idiomatic performance. The only Verdi conducting I've heard live that I thought approached this quality was Patrick Summers's Traviata last season. Luisotti was also a ton of fun to watch because sometimes he was conducting the phrase and didn't bother to beat time; his technique is extremely beautiful and interesting, while always being perfectly clear. (I had one of the aisle seats in orchestra rear row ZZ and could look straight down the center aisle at his back.) He got brilliant playing out of the orchestra and great singing out of the chorus. Special kudos to concertmaster Kay Stern and especially principal clarinetist Carey Bell for gorgeously-played solos.

I was talking with a friend the other week about this opera and he said it was strange that war was the main focus of the production - this before he saw it, I think, based on reviews. Well, I think war is not the main focus, not any more than the libretto calls for. The sets and costumes are effective and striking, except for the fact that Preziosilla looks as if she took a wrong turn on her way to a rehearsal of Le Grand Macabre. Poor Jill Grove!

I liked the scene at the inn a lot; some of the pilgrims were costumed in replicas of traditional pilgrim outfits, the ones that look shockingly like KKK outfits. Brrrr; very creepy to have them wandering across the stage, though I was puzzled by the light sabres they carried. What?? The monastery scene worked extremely well too, with the first half, outside the monastery, played on a bare stage with just a backdrop for the monastery wall; that wall went up to reveal the interior of the church, with a vaguely cosmological rear wall and a very simple circle of candles within which Leonora's hair was cut and she was robed as a monk.

The singing is somewhat variable, unsurprisingly, but it's all large-scale and sometimes very, very loud. Despite the intermittent vocal messiness, it's a pleasure to hear a performance that sounds uninhibited and has such a committed cast; I've heard more than one Verdi opera (Ernani at ENO last year, for example) sung decently without being especially memorable because the singers were just too polite and too controlled (too English?). Some of these operas need hell-for-leather singing to make the intended impact on the audience.

The vocal star of the show is probably Lucas Meacham, an Adler Fellow, as Melitone (one of the most annoying characters in all opera!). He just sings the best, and has quite a beautiful voice. Of the other principles, Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) was unsubtle and at his best when singing at the dynamic extremes. He sobbed a lot, probably more than he needed to, and did a good job of putting over the character's instability. Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlo) had the range, style, and musicianship and lacked mostly some ping at the top of his range, which sounded, not exactly constricted, but muffled. The audience laughed at him during Act II at one point, which shocked me; he wasn't singing anything funny at all. Maybe the notion of honor and revenge is too foreign to a 21st century audience; maybe if he'd been less dignified, more outraged, there wouldn't have been laughter.

Jill Grove sang accurately and with enormous spirit as Preziosilla but I wish she'd used fewer glottal attacks. I did not much like Orlin Anastossov's Guardiano; too Slavic a voice and too uninteresting in all ways next to Meacham.

And finally the Leonora, Andrea Gruber. She got a lot of publicity earlier this year when she went public about her past drug problems and resorting to gastric bypass surgery to deal with her weight. I'd heard her on a Met broadcast and in Nabucco here a few years back, thought her voice ugly and her singing undisciplined.

At the moment, her voice is under good control. She'll never match Leontyne Price for vocal beauty, but mostly she sounded decent. There are a couple of bad patches in her voice that are on the raw/ugly side. But she has the big upward and downward range required by the role, she has the loud and the soft and the in-between (unlike her tenor!), she has a decent legato, and she has the Verdi style down just fine. She is also a passionate and deeply involved actor. "Pace, pace" could have been better, and the stupid direction for that number may have been responsible for the problems she had, because she had to run up and down the set vertically a couple of times during the aria, but whatever. She was excellent in much of the rest of the opera.

Three performances remain (November 20, November 23, November 26), and if I could, I'd go to another.

Note: I've polished and republished this about five or six times today. Sorry!

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