The 2014 recording of Verdi’s La forza del destino from the Bayerischen Staatsoper has the kind of cast one hardly dares dream of. The elusive Anja Harteros sings Leonora with the almost equally hard to catch Jonas Kaufmann as Alvaro. Chucking in Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow doubling the Marchese and Padre Guardiano only improves matters and the rest of the cast is very good indeed. It was pretty much sure to be a winner and it is.
Martin Kušej updates the setting to roughly contemporary and there are hints of guerilla warfare in, perhaps, the Middle east, in Act 3 and a refugee camp in Act 4 but it’s not heavily conceptual and for the most part the production just makes an interesting backdrop to the story told pretty straightforwardly. There are some well wrought moments but not really a clear interpretive thread. The gun accidentally going off in the opening scene is really well done and there are hints that all is not quite as it seems with the Calatrava clan. There’s a touch of the modern mafia family, rather in the nature of Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni but it isn’t really sustained. The monastery/hermit’s cell scenes are quite abstract and visually interesting, especially the piled crosses in the forest but it is all just visual. There’s a pretty full on orgy in Act 3 but that’s all in the libretto. All in all it’s maybe Regie lite but nothing to really upset the traditionalists.
The singing and acting are top notch. Harteros sings like an angel and has that “deer in the headlights” look that no-one does better. Kaufmann is heroic of voice and manner and is the ideal foil. Tézier does a great job of portraying the increasingly unhinged Carlo pursuing his quarry in a way that reminds one of Feraud in The Duellists, while still managing to sing with exemplary style. I wonder if Conrad had seen Forza? Kowaljow manages gravitas on a René Pape scale which is no mean feat. There is an excellent cameo from Renato Giralami as Fra Melitone. One could argue that his character is too broadly drawn but I think that’s pretty much as written. Heike Grötzinger makes the most of Preziosilla with strong singing and very characterful acting; notably as a booty shorted dominatrix in the orgy scene. Orchestra and chorus are both excellent and I can’t fault Asher Fisch’s conducting.
Thomas Grimm directs for video and I do find his take too busy. This seems to be a production of carefully composed scenes and I think we need to see more of them in toto. There are times when the close ups are appreciated. Some of Harteros’ excellence and subtlety would be lost otherwise but I find it overdone. There’s no technical need either as even the darkest scenes come over fine on the DVD (and no doubt even better on Blu-ray). The DTS 5.1 surround side is also very good (LPCM stereo option). There are no extras on the disk and just a synopsis and track listing in the booklet. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Italian.
It’s hard to imagine a better sung version of this piece and the production is OK. It doesn’t add any real insights but it’s quite interesting to look at. Technical values are fine too so definitely worth a look.