It’s been 11 years since the Metropolitan Opera has performed Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” one of the composer’s late masterpieces and one that requires an ensemble of experienced singers who have the force to take on the composer’s demanding music. As a result, it is rarely performed around the world and for that reason, New York audiences have waited far too long before getting a chance to experience it.
This all changed on Friday, March 24 as the masterpiece was performed in a concert version by the New Amsterdam Opera, a company in its inaugural season.
The results were overall exceptional as the company lined up a solid list of performers.
A showstopping tenor
If there is one role that tenors relish singing it is Don Alvaro. The score features some of the most melodic and difficult pieces for the tenor voice in the repertoire. The tenor is required to stay in the passagio throughout the night, sometimes over an explosive orchestra. It can be hard to find the correct tenor for this role but the company found Errin Duane Brooks, a young singer who has the energy and the raw talent that allowed him to work through each passage without any effort.
From his first entrance, it was obvious that Brooks’ Alvaro was all passion as his voice boomed fully with all the ardor as Alvaro declared his love for his Leonora. Even in the slower section of the first duet with Leonora, Brooks’ had no qualms in letting out his full voice. And that was even more evident in his aria “Oh! tu che in seno agl’angelli.” Where more tenors would begin quietly with mezza voce, Brooks sang each line with a mezzo forte sound that would eventually rise to a fortissimo on his final high B flat at the end of the aria. The effect was magnificent as he demonstrated that this Alvaro was full of ardor and torment. And the B flat at the end was sustained, giving the aria a showstopping quality.
In the three duets with Carlo, Brooks showed different colors, albeit with the same power and strength. In “Solemne in quest’ora” Brooks timbre took on a yearning quality as he recited the lines “Or muoio tranquillo. Vi Stringo al cor mio.” These were not the lines of an Alvaro who was actually ready for death as Verdi’s line read.
In the second duet “Ne Gustare m’e dato un’ora di quiete” the voice was heroic allowing it to project throughout the auditorium. Each high note in the passagio strengthened as the duet climaxed and the sound grew in volume. But one of the biggest highlights of the night came when he hit the B natural. Brooks held it out bringing Alvaro’s desperation to the forefront. And in the final duet, that desperation was heard as he phrased each note with forceful and accented sound.
Where Brooks’ brought excitement to each part of the score, Stephen Gaertner’s Carlo demonstrated a true Verdi baritone force. His opening aria “Son Peredea, son d’onore” was given a darker color and there was some restraint as he emphasized certain words to really create the story he was telling.
But it was his “Urna Fatale” that really demonstrated his range. Gaertner showcased torment in Carlo as he delivered each line. While there was no prop he could work with, Gaertner used the audience as he looked into it, expressing the uncertainty in his vow. But as he concluded the aria, he regained his vocal strength and delivered the final note with assertion. And in the second part “Ah! Egli e salvo! Oh gioia immensa,” Gaertner savored each moment. The torment was gone and his voice regained the strength of a man ready for revenge. The cabaletta was propelled by his swift tempo, which only made for a more passionate delivery.
That strength was once again emphasized in his second duet with Alvaro. While Brooks’ Alvaro pleaded, Gaertner’s Carlo was firm, cutting each phrase short with a staccato sound. That provided huge contrast and gave the duet dynamism. The final duet allowed Gaertner to once again show that muscular strength. But this time, he was allowed to demonstrate his legato line in full force.
Where the two men enjoyed a successful evening soprano Kelly Griffin was a mixed bag. Griffin possesses a thick creamy voice that easily projected over any orchestra. She also has a rich middle voice. However, her high range had the custom of going flat and it was evident that she struggled throughout when it came to working in the top register particularly at the beginning of “Pace Pace Mio Dio.” Where most sopranos would begin with a crescendo into the opening note before diminishing the sound, Griffin began the aria in a very rough manner that unfortunately did not settle into the note immediately. Thankfully Griffin’s middle range made up for it as she delivered an impassioned middle section. Each phrase starting with a mezzo forte and eventually crescendoed. The “Maledizione” was repeated each time with more force. The final B flat started below the correct pitch, but settled towards the end and beamed through the auditorium until the orchestra concluded its coda.
Her “Vergine degli angeli” could have used a bit more mezza voce sound to match Verdi’s delicate orchestration. To be fair, the sound was rich and focused in this section, allowing audiences to feel Leonora’s pain.
Still, there were moments of pathos in her singing particularly the second aria “Madre, Pietosa Vergine.” Griffin repeated the words “Pieta” with emphatic grief. The aria built in momentum with her sound’s growing volume ratcheting up the intensity. It was the highlight of her evening.
As Preziosilla Janara Kellerman relished each moment. If Gaertner interacted with the audience during his “Urna Fatale,” Kellerman tried to interact with the chorus and her fellow singers on stage. Her voice was big and lush, and in many instances seemed more fit for an Azucena, and she chose to sing with strength, poise, and elegance. The result was that there were some smudged coloratura runs, particularly in the “Rataplan” but that was not enough to take away from her lush voice. The “Rataplan” was otherwise delivered with rhythmic precision.” Her “Viva la Guerra” was topped with power as she rolled her Rs with delight and even inserted a High C. The diction was given extra care and you could really understand every word she uttered.
The Supporting Cast
In the role of Trabuco, Robert Brubaker’s experience was on full display as he gave the character a charismatic feel, delivering a plethora of colors in his voice. Daniel Klein’s Fra Melitone was full of energy. Klein dug into each of his lines with extra accentuation and at times he emoted certain words. All these effects allowed for pleasant comic timing.
Wil Kellerman was superb as Alcade and Chirurgo and showcased a promising voice while Stefan Szkafrowsky sang the role of Padre Guardiano with a booming voice.
The orchestra, directed by Keith Chambers, had many great moments including the overture, which had a buoyant tempo. Chambers gave the small chamber orchestra the power needed for each duet, giving the music the rhythmic accuracy that Verdi requires. However, there were some mishaps, particularly at the beginning of the “Vergine degli angeli.” Rather than taking on a solo violin, Chambers opted for two violins and the two soloists could not get the notes accurately together, especially in the high sections. What should have been a moment of sublime spiritual introspection was far from it. The chorus was also thin in many ways, sometimes getting drowned out by the orchestra and the singers.
One of the complaints that can be easily fixed is that there were too many intermissions. Verdi’s music is long and complex but having two intermissions made for a rather long night. Propulsion is what makes Verdi click and often the best productions of his works limit the intermission as much as possible.
Still, in its third outing, the New Amsterdam Opera shows promise. Its emphasis on top singers came to fruition on this evening allowing audiences to hear a solid “Forza.”