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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Opera Review: There's Not a Lot of Money in Revenge

New Amsterdam Opera mounts La Forza del Destino.

Face-off: Tenor Errin Brooks (in profile) confronts baritone Stephen Gaertner
in La Forza del Destino at New Amsterdam Opera. Photo by Bidrum Vabish.

I have a confession to make. Up until yesterday, I had never heard of the New Amsterdam Opera. And then, on Friday afternoon on Facebook, a colleague and fellow critic mentioned that he was going to see their concert performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino ("The Force of Destiny") in the theater at Riverside church that very night. So it was my great pleasure to finds out that conductor Keith Chambers and his company were tackling Verdi’s most challenging opera in a concert performance.

What’s more, they did it with style.

Composed in 1862 and heavily revised in 1869, Forza is the Verdian equivalent of a Shakespeare problem play. It is an uneasy marriage between an experimental Spanish drama (Don Alvaro O La Fuerza di Sina by Alejandro  de Saavedra, the Duke of Rivas) and a long excerpt from Wallensteins-Lager by the German playwright Schiller. The resulting opera gleefully throws out any semblance of the Aristotelean unities for a sprawling story which careens from Spain to Italy and back again, and time-jumps between the second, third and fourth acts. In Forza, the characters do not meet, they collide  by random chance, with date tying their destinies together to produce a series of unfortunate events.

The opera is also demanding for the singers, and notoriously hard to cast. Don Alvaro is one of Verdi’s most noble creations, but it requires a tenore di forza (no pun intended) who can p produce stentorian volume and sing the softer parts with passion and warmth so you still care about him when he is done singing loudly. Tenor Errin Brooks met these challenges head-on, marshalling his resources for the Act Iii entrance aria and the series of back-breaking  duets sung with Carlo, the vengeance-obsessed baritone.

As Carlo di Vargas, the relentless hound to Alvaro’s hare, veteran baritone Stephen Gaertner gave a sterling baritone performance, uncovering the hidden meaning and deception in the Act Ii “Son Pereda” aria, a number that required to singer to spin fiction to a disbelieving audience. His true colors emerged in the great double aria in Act III and the duos that followed. And he still had power for the final duet in Act IV where the two men end it by rushing offstage to fight to the death. Great stuff.

The crowning jewel of any performance of Forza is Leonora, the opera’s star-crossed heroine, sung here by soprano Kelly Griffin. Ms. Griffin had the right amount of steel and flint in her voice to strike sparks with Mr. Brooks and cut through the large swirling ensemble in the inn scene. She summoned tones of warm religious passion in "Madre pietosa vergine”, the triple-length scena, aria and grand religious finale that is the fulcrum of the entire work. Offstage for all of Act III, Ms. Griffin returned in fine voice for the act IV aria “Pace pace mi dio", the opera’s searing spiritual climax. 

Forza also depends on its small army of vivid peripheral characters, who bring color to the vast canvas of humanity that Verdi was trying to paint. Here, some of the great successes were character tenor Robert Brubaker as Maestro Trabuco and bass-baritone Daniel Klein as Fra Melitone. (This is a surly, reluctant monk whose idea of charity would do Paul Ryan proud.) Mezzo Janara Kellerman was a forceful Presiozilla, the Gypsy girl who shills for the war in Italy in strident fashion. Less successful: the baritonal basso Stefan Szkafarowsky as Padre Guardiano. His harsh, unsympathetic tone would have been more suited to the acerbic Melitone.

Mr. Chambers chose the 1869 version of the score, moving the Trabuco-Melitone business and the Rataplan to an earlier spot in the third act. This rested Mr. Brooks and Mr. Gaertner, but damaged the continuity of this already disjointed sequence. He led the driving overture with gusto, a persistent energy that anticipated the return of its great themes throughout the score. This performance employed a orchestra (with just two cellos and one bass) but that proved ideal for the intimate black box theater and more importantly, did not drown out the singers. 

The chorus, arranged at the back of the orchestra were occasionally overwhelmed, but proved their worth in the great religious scenes that follow the first act. Indeed, the pilgrims chorus in Act II was an outstanding moment of the evening as the hectic action in the inn stopped temporarily for the consideration of higher things. For the Act IV  Melitone "sermon", they were arranged at the back of the house as well as onstage, and perhaps this would have better served the church scene that ends the second act,

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