There is no disputing the fact that Renata Tebaldi and the Decca record company were a match made in heaven. She recorded many of the major Verdi and Puccini operas in the Decca studios. She is also one of the few artists to make complete recordings of operas that used to be repertory standards, i.e. Catalani's La Wally and Cilea's Adriana Lecouvrer. Her 1955 recording of La Forza del Destino has just been reissued, and, to use the technical language of operatic criticism, it's a doozy.
The huge cast required for this opera is filled out with nothing less than an all-star lineup of post-war Italian singers. Tebaldi's Leonora is one of her greatest roles, soaring and expressive, right on the edge between madness and piety in her quest for redemption. Her grand Act II aria and scena is a glorious, religious experience. Mario del Monaco enters the first act like a thunderbolt--he is always at his best in over-the-top roles and his Alvaro is no exception. He displays fine ringing tone throughout, building up to such a height of apoplexy that one expects him to force the opera to follow Verdi's original "suicide" ending just to he can hurl himself shrieking over a cliff!
As the manic Don Carlo (not to be confused with the equally manic Don Carlo in Don Carlo) Ettore Bastianini chews the scenery, managing the subtleties of the "Pereda" aria and then going toe-to-toe with del Monaco in the third act. Giulietta Simionato is a gorgeous, old-school Preziosilla, hitting the low "Buona notte" note that most mezzos avoid today. The minor parts are in good hands: two monks are the very capable Fernando Corena (as Fra Melitone) and Cesare Siepi (as the Padre Guardiano).
The idea for this recording came about in 1953 when Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted a legendary series of Forza performances in Italy. He is absent here, replaced by the pedestrian Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. Leading the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Molinari-Pradelli takes a foursquare approach to the music. He lacks the rhythmic snap necessary for a great Verdi performance.
The other problem is the orchestral sound. In 1955, Decca had not yet perfected its stereo recording techniques, and the problems are readily apparent from the overture onward. The orchestral sound is compressed to an unacceptable degree, and the result is buzzing and rattling in the speakers when the brass and percussion come in at full blast. Even the much-vaunted Decca digital remastering has not cured the fact that for much of this recording, the orchestral forces are simply playing at levels which the recording technology of 1955 failed to capture.It is ironic that, of the major studio recordings of this sprawling opera, the one with the finest singers and best vocal performances is cursed with medocre conducting and worse orchestral sound.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats
- Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.