Text: Peter Franken
Gegam Grigorian as Don Alvaro
We will stay with Gegam Grigorian, who would have turned 70 on 29 January. In addition to the Russian repertoire, he also frequently sang the great Italian opera roles. One of those is Don Alvaro from Verdi’s La forza del destino. Grigorian sang this role in 1998 in a remarkable production of the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev. The director this time was the renowned Elija Moshinsky who died on 14 January this year, six days after his 75th birthday.
In this very fine production, Moshinsky limited himself to directing, nothing more, nothing less. The stage setting is a meticulously recreated copy by Andreas Roller of the original work by set designer Andrey Voitenko, who had been responsible for the stage set at the 1862 premiere of Forza in St. Petersburg. At the start of each scene, an image showing Roller’s work is briefly projected, immediately followed by the reconstructed version. It is very cleverly done and miraculously brings back to life the premiere of the very first version of the opera.
For the music the choice is also on the little-performed St. Petersburg version. In my opinion, the biggest difference with the later Milan version of 1869 lies in the much shorter overture. Here it ends very quickly, whereas the later version seems to drag on endlessly. Other changes pale into insignificance compared to the countless cuts that have plagued performances of Forza over the years.
Gergiev is presenting a complete original version and the result is astounding. The all-Russian cast, soloists, chorus and dancers, are magnificently dressed in costumes derived from the period in which the work was created. Although the story is set a 100 years earlier, (in the mid-18th century), it still feels quite authentic to a contemporary audience.
A modern viewer will also be more alert to the racism that characterises the libretto of this opera. Don Alvaro is a half-breed, admittedly of Inka nobility, but still an indian. The furious way in which the Marquis of Calatrava and his son Don Carlo pour out their anger and indignation on Alvaro goes far beyond the classic case of ‘daughter elopes with a nobleman and we want our revenge.’ Here it is all about the alleged ‘pollution of the bloodline’; the ultimate affront to the Marquis and his hot-tempered son.
Prima donna Galina Gorchakova sings an almost spotless Donna Leonora. Her hesitations, fears, despair and agony are all perfectly dosed, and nowhere is her acting forced or overemphasised. She’s the whole package.
Marianna Tarasova is an, also outwardly, attractive Preziosilla. Her volume in the low register leaves something to be desired, but overall it is a fine performance. Tarasova’s acting is very strong; even had she not actually sung it, she would still have been able to recognisably perform the role.
Georgy Zastavny knows how to hold back as Fra Melitone; his monk is a somewhat frustrated, quick-tempered man who takes himself very seriously: Moshinsky clearly does not go for a buffo rendition. Melitone’s superior Padre Guardiano is in good hands with Sergei Alexashkin, a beautiful bass. A young Yevgeny Nikitin in the small role of the Alcalde is also quite pleasing.
Nikolai Putilin’s Don Carlo reminded me, particularly in the first two acts, of Detective Andy Sipowicz in the NYPD Blue series, a man with an extremely unreliable looking “ugly mug.” Also a matter of transference of course: Don Carlo does indeed lie about everything and anything. His make- up in the later acts is clearly different; now he is the revenge-seeking nobleman who has made the killing of his sister and her lover his life’s purpose. Putilin sings and acts a very convincing Don Carlo, someone you quickly come to dislike, and that is a compliment. His role fits perfectly in the line of ‘heroic baritones’ that Verdi has patented.
As so often with Verdi, the hero tenor does not get the girl, hardly even gets to sing a real duet with her and only meets his lost lover at the very end for a very brief moment of recognition and happiness. On the other hand, Don Alvaro does have very beautiful solos to sing, not as an intimate lover but more as a desperate romantic.
It is all made for Gegam Gregorian. It is the only recording I have of him singing in Italian and I can well imagine that in his glory years he took the international stage by storm. This Don Alvaro is absolutely top-notch; I am glad that, on the occasion of Grigorian’s seventieth birthday, I finally played that DVD again after at least 15 years.
Gergiev is the overall musical director and he turns it into a festive occasion. This recording comes six years after Pique Dame and it is clear that the overexploitation, that he subjected himself to during those few years, has aged him by 20 years. He has, of course, succeeded in his mission: to bring back the Mariinsky Theatre to the world stage.