VERDI: La Forza del Destino / Gilda Cruz-Romo, sop (Leonora); Joy Davidson, mezzo (Preziosilla); Franco Bonisolli, ten (Don Alvaro); Kostas Paskalis, bar (Don Carlo); Sesto Bruscantini, bar (Fra Melitone); Cesare Siepi, bass (Padre Guardiano); Manfred Jungwirth, bass (Marchese); Axelle Gall, mezzo (Curra); Kurt Equiluz, ten (Trabucco); Georg Tichy, bar (Un Chirugo); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, cond. / PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia; E lucevan le stelle. Madama Butterfly: Dovunque al mondo; Bimba dagli occhi; Addio, fiorito asil / Franco Bonisolli, ten; unidentified bar, sop, cond / Opera Depot OD 10992-3, available at operadepot.com (Forza live: Vienna, September 29, 1974)
Unlike most of his famous operas, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino has not fared well on records. Perhaps the best overall performance was the first recording, made in 1941, with Maria Caniglia, Ebe Stignani as the finest of all Preziosillas, Galliano Masini, Carlo Tagliabue and Tancredi Pasero, conducted by Gino Marinuzzi, but the orchestra plays sloppily and the recording is, sadly, abridged. My own personal favorite performance, up until now, was a live performance from the San Francisco Opera in 1979 with Leontyne Price, Judith Forst, Veriano Luchetti, Renato Bruson and Martti Talvela. Kurt Herbert Adler, a good, experienced music director, conducts a relatively low-key performance, emphasizing the music’s tragedy and darkness rather than its energy, but it works very well in context.
Cruz-Romo as Leonora
This surprisingly clear, clean live tape from Vienna in 1974 is an entirely different kettle of fish. Young Riccardo Muti drives a completely idiomatic performance from start to finish, if not quite in the manner of Toscanini at least in the tradition of Marinuzzi or perhaps Gavazzeni. The star of the show, despite the presence of other stellar names, is soprano Gilda Cruz-Romo, a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in those years who, for whatever reason, never made a single commercial recording, thus souvenirs like this are all we have to remember and treasure what a fantastic artist she was. Cruz-Romo possessed a good-sized lyric spinto that could also, surprisingly, scale itself down to sing Madama Butterfly at times (yes, I heard her sing it in a Met broadcast). In addition to having a good “cut,” the voice was also very beautiful and she possessed a fine trill, something most of her Italian sisters did not have.
The rest of the opera is also cast from strength. Tenor Franco Bonisolli had an overweening ego the size of Mount Everest, but unlike his kissin’ cousin Franco Corelli, he sang musically and cleanly and at least tried to present a character onstage. Most people only remember baritone Kostas Paskalis from his one commercial opera recording, the Carmen with Grace Bunbry and Jon Vickers (which I, and a few other critics, thought was absolutely wonderful, but which many thought was somehow sub-par); here, he is a vital and compelling Don Carlo. Basso Cesare Siepi can’t really compare vocally with Martti Talvela as Padre Guardiano, but he’s in surprisingly fine voice for this late date—less wobbly than in the 1950s (his Forza recording with Tebaldi was awful) through the mid-1960s—and interpretively he is superb, with a solid low F at the end of the Guardiano-Melitone duet. Joy Davidson is an excellent Preziosilla with a good cut up top and juicy low notes (shades of Ebe Stignani!), and something that neither Stignani nor Forst had, a good trill (I’ve never heard those trills in her second scene before), though I never liked Preziosilla’s scenes. Yes, I know Verdi was trying to lighten the mood in this otherwise dark opera, but the music goes in one ear and out the other, and it’s too long.
But—and this is the real crux of the matter—Muti pulls the structure of the music together better than anyone, including James Levine, who I heard conduct it in person (with Martina Arroyo, Joanne Grillo, Jon Vickers, Matteo Managuerra, Gabriel Bacquier and Bonaldo Giaiotti, a damn near Golden Age cast) as well as on the even duller RCA recording with Price and Domingo. The only other conductor who comes close to this was young Valery Gergiev, on the outstanding DVD production of the opera, but Muti is even better. He even gets the voices in the muleteer-Preziosilla scenes to blend together like madrigal singers. Even journeyman baritone Georg Tichy sounds good in his bit part. This, folks, is the best-conducted Forza you’ll ever hear in your life. Trust me on this!
Cruz-Romo sings an absolutely no-holds-barred Leonora, not quite as sumptuous in tone as Arroyo or Price but ten times more intense than either, like Caniglia in overdrive with an even better low range. She pulls off a perfect messa da voce at the end of “Madre, pietosa vergine” the likes of which I’ve never heard before (sadly, Rosa Ponselle never recorded this scene), and manages to float her high notes, particularly in “La vergine degl’angeli” which sounds like a silver halo overhead. Good God, what an artist this woman was! In a 1980 interview published online, Cruz-Romo made it clear that she was “lucky” that all her vocal excellence stemmed from her teacher, baritone Ángel Esquivel: “Teaching is an apostolic job,” Cruz-Romo said. “Not everybody can be a teacher…He was not only a teacher, a great teacher, he was a great artist himself, he was a gentleman, and for me he was the father, the adviser, the friend, even a companion.” Esquivel’s career was mostly in the 1910s and ‘20s, and he recorded several Mexican and Spanish songs for Victor in the acoustic era; you can listen to his artistry here.
As for Bonisolli, he combines Italianate passion with fine vocal acting and phrasing that is, to my ears, unique in this role. Not quite as lyric as di Stefano, he is also not as brusque in his vocal attacks as Tucker or del Monaco, but somewhere in between. Some of his singing is quite astonishing, almost as if he is giving a dramatic reading of the words rather than “just singing” in the conventional sense. He holds the high B-flat in “O tu che in seno agl’angeli” a shade longer than the score directs, but is absolutely chaste compared to that pig Corelli (absolutely the worst musician I ever heard sing tenor…a great voice but nothing between the ears). “Solenne in quest’ora” is sung a bit loudly, not quite as subtle as Luchetti and certainly no match for Vickers, but also has great feeling in it, and he doesn’t milk the high notes as much as Corelli or even Jussi Björling did (in his studio recording of the duet—he never sang the role onstage). Paskalis’ reading of “Morir! tremenda cosà…Urna fatale” is almost on a par with the great Leonard Warren in intensity, and throughout this scene Muti pulls the music together brilliantly and provides orchestral detail that others miss. There is also an extra intensity in “Sleale! Il segreto!” that other conductors (and singers) miss, e.g., the sharply-etched cello triplets in the background (alas, this was one of the scenes omitted from the Masini-Marinucci recording). Even the chorus sounds exciting! Sesto Bruscantini, here in his late years, is a shade fluttery as Fra Melitone but still quite good.
“Invano Alvaro…Le minaccie” is also superb; Bonisolli has a “bite” in his voice here that reminded me of Giovanni Martinelli, and Paskalis is appropriately menacing. Needless to say, Cruz-Romo sings the messa da voce at the beginning of “Pace, pace mio Dio” perfectly, as she always did, and accents the words beautifully, becoming incredibly passionate towards the end of the aria. The ensuing duet with Don Alvaro is equally passionate, the final trio simply radiant. Cruz-Romo’s soft high note is plucked out of the air, almost as perfectly as Ponselle sang it in her 1928 recording.
The excerpts from Tosca (an opera I couldn’t care less for) and Madama Butterfly by Bonisolli, unlike the complete Forza, are recorded from audience level with a personal tape recorder, so the sound is not optimum. Bonisolli sings well, but there is some strain in the voice not evident in the Forza, and at this point his style had become sloppier and he was hanging onto his high notes much longer. The conductors in neither performance are named, nor are the baritone and soprano in the Butterfly excerpts. The latter also have an overly-bright, brittle sound. I couldn’t identify the snarling, wobbly baritone at all. The soprano has a firmer voice with a nice, girlish sound and very musical styling, but with the sound distorted like this I couldn’t tell who it was. Opera Depot, however, features a 2-CD set of excerpted Bonisolli performances, and it looks as if these same tracks are on there, naming Jeanette Pilou as Cio-Cio-San and Eberhard Wächter as Sharpless (no conductor, from Vienna in 1977). I’ll bet that’s who they are.
And here’s the best part: for this week only, this recording is available at Opera Depot as a FREE download just for signing up to receive their email announcements. Believe me, it’s worth it. This is a Forza for the ages.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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