My wife and I attended new productions of “Forza del Destino” in Zurich on October 19 and San Francisco on November 20, 2005. In both cases we sat in first row seats, directly behind a masterful Italian conductor, veteran Nello Santi in Zurich and novitiate Nicola Luisotti in San Francisco, each of whom has received glowing praise by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
That orchestra can be very demonstrative when they appreciate a conductor and feel that they have been led in a masterful performance. At the performance’s end (and sometimes at the end of an act), each instrumentalist who so desires expresses approbation using their instruments in a characteristic manner, such as the strings gesturing with their bows.
The entire orchestra can also politely sit as still as stones when a conductor has not been to their fancy. Rarely has their expressed enthusiasm appeared to be more nearly unanimous than with Santi (who has not performed in San Francisco for a few years) and Luisotti.
[Below: Conductor Nello Santi; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
Both performances were sung well by their respective casts. On balance, the Zurich production had the better known cast, since it contained the Padre Guardiano of Matti Salminen (whose performance six weeks later as Gurnemanz in the Los Angeles “Parsifal” mounted for Placido Domingo [see Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005] and the Don Carlo di Vargas of Leo Nucci.
Nucci had been well-received in San Francisco in 1983 as Germont in “La Traviata”, in 1985 as Michonnet in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” and in 1987 as Figaro in “Barber of Seville”. In 1984, Salminen had been the Prince Khovansky the first time I saw Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”. Also in the Zurich cast were Joanna Kozlowska as Leonora, Vincenzo La Scola as Don Alvaro, Rosanna Rinaldi as Preziosilla and Paolo Rumetz as Fra Melitone.
It is rare that a Don Carlo steals the show from the Leonora and Alvaro, but Nucci did just that, with a bravura performance of Son Pereda, son rico d’onore in the Hornachuelos Inn scene. At the end of his aria, he not only stepped out of character to accept the vigorous Zurich applause, but he gestured (and had his gesture reciprocated) his appreciation for Santi’s conducting. Whatever is happening in the rest of the world, the traditions of Italian opera appear secure in Santi’s Zurich.
There does seem to be an occasional attempt by the Zurich management to change some things. This “Forza” was split into two parts, the first ending at the induction of Leonora into the monastery. The resulting second part is therefore much longer than the first, perhaps twice as long. Obviously, Santi wanted two intermissions instead of one.
But he compromised with management. At the point at which he would have placed the second intermission, he set his baton down and left for about 15 minutes, leaving the orchestra and audience in the darkened theatre. No one got an intermission except him. Then he returned, smiled, picked up the baton and continued on with his third act, or the second part of management’s second act.
The new production by Ezio Frigerio was directed by Nicolas Joel, familiar to San Francisco Opera audiences as first a collaborator with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, then as a stage director in his own right (see the DVD of San Francisco’s 1980 “Samson et Dalila” with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett).
The production had mostly traditional elements, associated with a time and place (18th century Spain and Italy) specified by Verdi and his librettist, with appropriate period costumes by Franca Squarciapino. The principal anachronism was a metallic cage that represented Leonora’s cell.