Sony Opera House – Verdi’s La forza del destino [Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes & James Levine]

0 of 5 stars

Verdi
La forza del destino – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave [1869 revised version; sung in Italian]

Il Marchese di Calatrava – Kurt Moll
Donna Leonora – Leontyne Price
Don Carlo di Vargas – Sherrill Milnes
Don Alvaro – Plácido Domingo
Preziosilla – Fiorenza Cossotto
Padre Guardiano – Bonaldo Giaiotti
Fra Melitone – Gabriel Bacquier
Curra – Gillian Knight
Trabuco – Michel Sénéchal
Un Alcalde – Malcolm King
Un Chirurgo – William Elvin
Paesana – Valerie Hill
Soldati – Peter Hall, Edgar Fleet, Brian Etheridge & William Mason

John Alldis Choir

London Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Recorded 31 July to 10 August 1976 in Walthamstow Town Hall, London


Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: March 2012
CD No: SONY OPERA HOUSE
88697986002 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes

Let’s not beat about the bush: this recording (originally issued on RCA Red Seal LPs) of Verdi’s sprawling revenge opera is close to ideal. Outstandingly played and sung, vividly recorded and thrillingly conducted, it achieves the ultimate goal of any studio recording by placing the listener inside a fantasy opera house in front of a dream production teeming with spectacle and high emotion.

Of the principal singers, both Leontyne Price and Plácido Domingo have also recorded their roles elsewhere – she ten years earlier in the much-coveted Thomas Schippers recording (also for RCA), he a decade later for EMI in Riccardo Muti’s disappointing live recording from La Scala – but in the present set, with the great Verdi exponent Sherrill Milnes on board as Don Carlo, we have a peerless central trio. Granted, in the opening scene Price’s dark timbre does not wholly suit the heroine’s youthful impulsiveness, but as the opera unfolds she comes to embody the careworn spirituality that marks Leonora’s descent into despair.

For much of the opera Don Carlo tracks down Don Alvaro (the unfortunate suitor of his sister, Leonora, and the man who killed the siblings’ father in a freak pistol accident) with the implacability of Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. False identities and military interventions ensure that the two men have a succession of non-lethal encounters along the way – fortunately so for the listener, as this enables two of the 20th-century’s leading operatic actors to share some prodigious duos. While Domingo is terrific throughout as Don Alvaro – heroic, tortured and brave as the music demands – Milnes achieves wonders in fleshing out the nuances of a character who can easily be played as mad and bad: the American bass-baritone’s virtuoso delivery of Don Carlo’s great third-act scena – “Morir! Tremenda cosa!” – is alone worth the modest asking price of this reissue.

All the minor roles are well taken, and together they make a major contribution to the recording’s success. An infectiously lively Fiorenza Cossotto pops up now and again to leaven the gloom as the gypsy Preziosilla, while Gabriel Bacquier and Bonaldo Giaiotti are a notably well-matched pair of Franciscans (too well-matched, perhaps, as it can be difficult to tell them apart in their scenes together). As for the members of the John Alldis Choir, they triumph as soldiers, peasants or pilgrims. Their dramatic focus only dips when they appear as beggars during Act Four, at which point they fall out of character and sing like, well, a choir.

The analogue recording scarcely shows its age. There is though a hint of tape print-through in the closing pages, and the ugly edit just before Don Carlo’s avenging oath in Act Four (“Invano Alvaro ti celasti al mundo”) could surely have been corrected during the re-mastering process. A generous allocation of microphones allows for the kind of dynamic aural thrill one normally associates with Decca recordings of the period, even though the producer (RCA’s legendary Richard Mohr, making one of his last recordings before stepping down from duty the following year, 1977) was very much from the old school.

All this said, the hero of the hour (or three) is James Levine. This recording is one of a handful he has made in the UK – but thanks to his extensive recorded legacy from the Met we know him to be a Verdian with few equals. The young Levine takes an opera that’s as brimful of overheated Latin emotions as a Sergio Leone ‘Western’ and steers it, shapes it and colours it with absolute authority. From the Overture’s febrile asides to Don Alvaro’s questionable redemption through Leonora’s death, all is as it should be. Despite the lack of a printed libretto (always a grouse with these Sony Opera House reissues), this set is indispensable.

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