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31 Jan 2005

La Forza del destino at Opéra Royal de Wallonie

So this was how a Forza would have sounded in the fifties and sixties in one of the better Italian provincial houses. At that time those extinguished species (lirico-spinto tenor and soprano) were still in abundant supply and one could easily hear nowadays forgotten names like Zambruno, Mori, Vicentini, Borso on the male and Mancini, De Osma, Barbato etc on the female side: big booming voices, maybe not always very subtle but steeped in the Verdian tradition and not afraid to give unstintingly all of their voices as if there is no tomorrow.

Manon Feubel — Donna Leonora di Vargas, Frank Porretta — Don Alvaro and Michael Ryssov — Padre Guardiano
Copyright: Opéra Royal de Wallonie

Feubel and Porretta in Forza

So this was how a Forza would have sounded in the fifties and sixties in one of the better Italian provincial houses. At that time those extinguished species (lirico-spinto tenor and soprano) were still in abundant supply and one could easily hear nowadays forgotten names like Zambruno, Mori, Vicentini, Borso on the male and Mancini, De Osma, Barbato etc on the female side: big booming voices, maybe not always very subtle but steeped in the Verdian tradition and not afraid to give unstintingly all of their voices as if there is no tomorrow.

Frank Porretta (the 3rd) fits this description to a T. The actual sound is a little bit undistinct : a dark somewhat thick voice in the Vinay-mould but with more metal above the staff and ringing high notes. Mezza-voce and piano are not his best points. The fine Verdi-phrase too in the Bergonzi-way is not his and therefore what should be the high point of his role, the La vita-monologue, remains a little bland. But he sings tirelessly, has all the notes, doesn't sob and cuts a fine figure on the stage. And after having heard too much lyric tenors forcing their instruments on Verdi's heavier roles, it comes as a relief to hear a singer coping easily with the score and not being afraid to show his emotions through a few extra decibels in the Del Monaco-manner. His is not a big career and I fail to see why, as with the actual dearth of such voices he would be a commanding Otello, Manrico, Canio. I've heard his countryman, Carl Tanner, described as a kind of heroic tenor but I've now heard Tanner in several roles (Mefisto, Fanciulla, Luisa Miller) and neither in sound or volume is he half as exciting as Porretta.

Another big gun was delivered by young Mexican baritone Carlos Almaguer. He too has decibels to spare and he too is not the most refined of singers (but neither is the role as it clearly depicts an obsessed blood-hound who chases his victims for five years). The voice has the brown colour of the real great Italian heroic baritone and when he sings out he could match Porretta tit for tat. "Invano Alvaro" was the real challenge by two hot-blooded people and it made a tremendous impression. Moreover the whole "Ne gustare"scene was restored and not cut as happens too often as it makes the opera overlong (the truth is that most tenors and baritones don't have the stamina to tackle that difficult scene as well, coming so soon after their big arias and duet " Sollenne in quest'ora" and knowing that their immense last act still has to follow). Almaguer's voice reminds me a lot of the underestimated Aldo Protti in his best live performances and so does his short stocky figure. It came somewhat as a surprise that this heroic voice didn't take the higher options; indeed at high F and G the voice thins and loses focus. Still, a force of nature.

Canadian Manon Feubel has the same big sound, though with her, there is refinement as well. I heard her at Liège several years ago in a fine Carmen (with Uria-Monzon) where she struck me as the best singer. The voice is still fine but has definitely grown and can easily soar over the orchestra. But contrary to her male partners, she has some nice diminuendo's and knows how to sing an appealing messa di voce in several of her arias. She knows how to spin out long arching phrases in one breath in "Me pellegrino" and "Pace, pace" and she could easily be heard over the monks in the second act. With Feubel too one wonders why she is not better known (I know, I know: I have her one solo CD) as she combines power with excellent phrasing. And I fear it has something to do with her looks. She is not tall and rather large though as with many somewhat large women she has a very beautiful face. In Forza, largeness is no handicap as for most of the time she can (convincingly) act in robes, coats and frocks but I cannot imagine any serious Verdi-lover objecting to her as Aida or some of the other Leonores because she has a few pounds too many.

French high baritone Olivier Grand has a cutting baritone and was a most convincing Melitone, indeed the best I remember since Renato Capecchi in Verona so long ago. Only Padre Guardiano didn't raise to the heights this grateful role requires. The imposing tall White-Russian bass Michail Ryssow sang too woolly with a somewhat throaty and unfocused sound.

French conductor Alain Guingal is not really a household name though he has conducted in several of the best houses. I've heard him a few times in Liège and each time he strikes me as choosing correct tempi, breathing with his singers, not unduly hurrying his orchestra for extra-brilliance. And this time too, one didn't really notice the conductor as everything flowed so naturally along and maybe this is the highest praise for a good Verdi-conductor.

The production was originally conceived by French director Bernard Broca (deceased in December 2002) for Avignon and probably made a lot of people happy: no civil wars in Spain or guerrilla in present-day Columbia but colourful 17th century Spain and Italy as Verdi and Piave intended it all along. I have nothing against updating if there is a clear concept but with surtitling now available to the whole audience these traditional costumes and designs fit so much better with the libretto. I don't know if it was Broca's idea or that of Claire Servais who did the actual directing but I think if one chooses for a realistic production one should follow it to the end. During the inn scene where Carlos is looking for his sister, everybody kneeled at the arrival of the pilgrims except Leonore and it would have taken Carlos half a second to recognize the only standing figure. And at the end she simply marches away to the lights of her apotheoses.

Jan Neckers

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