Verdi: La forza del destino
Antonietta Stella, soprano (Leonora), Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Don Alvaro), Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Don Carlo), Walter Kreppel, bass (Padre Guardiano), Giulietta Simionato, mezzo-soprano (Preziosilla), Karl Dľnch, bass (Fra Melitone), Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Conductor.

MYTO 2 MCD 4228 (2 Discs). F (ADD) TT: 2:38:07

In September of 1960 Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted six performances at the Vienna State Opera of Verdi's La forza del destino. The Vienna Forza proved to be Mitropoulos's final operatic production.  November 2 when Mitropoulous was rehearsing the La Scala Opera Orchestra in Mahler's Third Symphony, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 64. Such circumstances alone would command attention to the 23 September 1960 Vienna Forza performance now reissued by MYTO. But there are so many other factors that make this compelling listening.

First, there are several factors that would preclude this recording as a first recommendation of the opera. The Overture (thrillingly performed by Mitropoulos and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) is placed not at the beginning, but rather, between the first and second scenes of Act I. There are cuts in Verdi's score, including the orchestral and choral introduction to Act III, scene I, and the opening of Act III, scene III, thus removing the great "Sleale" confrontation duet for Don Alvaro and Don Carlo. In addition, Dimitri Mitropoulos was never a conductor known for pristine technical execution in the manner of, say, Arturo Toscanini or Fritz Reiner. There are many instances of shaky ensemble, both in the orchestral playing, and in the coordination between pit and stage.

The singers also bring their share of flaws to the performance. The Leonore, Antonietta Stella, cannot match such sopranos as Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, or Montserrat Caball╚ when it comes to ethereal high notes. Giuseppe di Stefano mercilessly pushes his lyric tenor in the role of Don Alvaro, adopting the wide-open approach to the passaggio and upper register that led to his early vocal demise. Baritone Ettore Bastianini has difficulty negotiating the cantilena in much of Carlo's music without resorting to aspirates. Walter Kreppel and Karl Dľnch are rather Germanic as Padre Guardiano and Fra Melitone.

That having been said, there are many factors that make this one of the most exciting performances of Forza that I have ever heard. Whatever Mitropoulos lacked in technical perfection, he more than compensated for with his passion and musicality. A great man of the theater, he leads a performance of gripping intensity always giving Verdi's music its full due. Whether depicting the violence of the battlefield or the refuge of the monastery, it's clear Mitropoulos is working with the singers, allowing them to do their best in Verdi's extraordinarily difficult music.

Antonietta Stella brings a glorious, radiant soprano voice and considerable temperament to the role of Leonora. From the very opening measures she fully conveys the plight of Leonora. This intensity of approach continues to the end, making Leonora's death scene one of almost unbearable power. Stella's final cry of "Alvaro!" makes it clear that this Leonora does not want to die. I found this, and many other moments in Stella's performance, profoundly moving.

Likewise, Giuseppe di Stefano, despite lacking the heft of voice and technique for one of Verdi's most demanding tenor roles, is an electrifying Alvaro. Listen, for example, to the way he sculpts Alvaro's grand aria in Act III, proceeding from the most inward piano singing to cries of anguish. There is no question that in this performance, di Stefano is singing on his capital, and then some, but the effort fully conveys the desperation of this character. It should be mentioned that the tenor is in about as good a voice as he was capable of at this stage of his career. And, as always, the beauty of his middle voice, and glorious diction, are great assets.

Ettore Bastianini's wonderfully dark, masculine voice is ideal in color for the role of the vengeful Don Carlo. He, too, brings great intensity to his interpretation, making the last-act confrontation with di Stefano hair-raising indeed. Giulietta Simionato is a predictably superb Preziosilla. Kreppel brings a sonorous voice and elegance to the role of Padre Guardiano, while Dľnch is a lively, if somewhat technically pressed Melitone.

The recorded sound, with the exception of some distortion in the highest and loudest vocal passages is superb in clarity, definition, and immediacy. Much of the audience reaction is preserved, confirming that the Staatsoper audience was indeed transported by this galvanic performance. Again, this is not a recording for those who demand every note of Verdi's score or the utmost in technical refinement. On the other hand, I certainly count this Vienna Forza among the handful of recordings that successfully convey the magic and inspiration a performance that, for all its flaws, is one of greatness.

K.M. (April 2001)