28 Jan 2011

Mehta conducts Verdi’s La Forza del Destino on Blu-Ray

A recent news report on entertainment technology noted that sales of “regular” DVDs had plummeted in recent years, while the newer Blu-Ray format has seen substantial increases.

Which makes sense, given the numbers of high-end televisions sold in recent years, and the gradual decrease in the cost of Blu-Ray players. So what does the Blu-Ray format add to the enjoyment of a particular feature?

The so-called regular DVD format of a 2007 performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino crossed your reviewer’s path about 18 months ago, and not long ago, the Blu-Ray version made an appearance as well. A few lines below, readers will find the earlier review of the “regular” DVD copied in its entirety. Did watching the Blu-Ray version alter the opinions expressed at that time?

Not a bit. The staging is still handsome but lifeless, the singers talented but uninspired. The sharpness of the Blu-Ray picture allows, perhaps, for greater admiration of the sheer quality of the costuming and background projections. It also, unfortunately, brings into worrisome focus the waxy look of stage make-up and the shiny surfaces of wigs. The audio track, however, has to be commended for its spacious, penetrating aural picture. Certainly, anyone attracted to this performance and possessing a Blu-Ray player should opt for this version. For more casual viewers, nothing significant would be lost with the “regular” version. And now that earlier review:

This looks like a winner, with an esteemed conductor (Zubin Mehta), top-rank cast (Violeta Urmana, Marcello Giordani, Carlo Guelfi), and a production directed by Nicholas Joël that originated at the Opernhaus Zürich, a house that takes some chances and scores some successes. But the beauty expected doesn’t even go skin deep. While Verdi’s great score keeps La Forza del Destino in the standard repertory, the problematic libretto requires both sharp intelligence and inspired imagination. Sure, one can go back to the classic video with Tebaldi and Corelli, where the fabric of the cheap sets ripples every time a character brushes past. At least their singing mesmerizes, distracting the 21st century viewer from the 19th century production values. Despite the quality of the performers here, that magic act does not repeat itself.

To be fair to Nicholas Joël, the booklet credits state that the production was “restaged by Timo Schlüssel.” All that matters is that the result of the men’s work feels like an elaborately costumed concert performance. The chorus stand in blocks or move in unison. The actors usually occupy a small space near the front of the stage and seldom interact convincingly. The costumes of Franca Squarciapino, while well-made, all seem to have come straight from the cleaner’s. Even after a battle-scene the two Dons look immaculate. Ezio Frigerio’s sets barely distinguish between the opera’s varied settings, with the final scene being the lamest. Leonora’s mountain hideaway is simply a barred cage, like one would see at some dreadful old-time zoo. Working in such forlorn circumstances, even the most vibrant of performers would struggle. As commendable as their vocal efforts may be, these singers need more direction to be effective. Violeta Urmana is a very healthy Leonora, with that pitiful loaf of bread for her meal apparently having a substantial carbo load. Perhaps needless to say, the effort to make her convincing as a male produces laughable results. But close the eyes and the ears will hear a substantial voice that can meet all of the challenging role’s demands, often with attractive power. Carlo Guelfi delivers a “shades of black” interpretation of Don Carlo, Leonora’s vengeful brother, but again, he delivers the goods vocally.

Marcello Giordani comes across as more committed to portraying a character, and his Don Alvaro does have both nobility, pride, and the requisite fatalism. As is typical with this busy singer, the middle voice sounds as good as any tenor today, but the top range is variable — sometimes ringing out as tenor fans love, and other times turning hoarse, constricted. Julia Gertseva’s Preziosilla can be counted a success in so far as the character is not nearly as annoying as she can be. Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Padre Guardino and Bruno De Simone’s Fra Melitone fade into the grayness of the production’s dim inspiration.

Zubin Mehta doesn’t try to prettify the score, letting its occasionally crass martial music roar away. The singers are always well-supported, and the forces of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, where this performance took place in 2007 (TDK doesn’t give any more time information), play idiomatically.

And to get really picky, TDK could do a better job of graphically identifying which of the two discs is which, as they have identical faces except for very tiny lettering with the disc number tucked away under the copyright. Go for the Tebaldi/Corelli, if it can be found.

Chris Mullins