The Metropolitan Opera has been streaming old performances, and currently they have La forza del destino, the Verdi opera, from 1984. I don’t mean the opera is. Forza premiered in 1862. But the streamed performance took place on March 24, 1984.
It stars Leontyne Price, as Leonora, who is near the end. What do I mean? She was fifty-seven at the time, and would retire from the operatic stage about nine months later (in another Met performance, as Aida). She would give occasional recitals until 1997.
I believe I attended most of them.
How is she in this March ’84 Forza? She does many Price-like things. I take that phrase, “Price-like,” from another critic, who used it toward the end of the great soprano’s career. I wish I could remember the critic to credit him.
The voice is frayed, sure, and the mannerisms are pronounced. That happens to singers, and to artists of other types, too. Price does a fair amount of sliding and swooping around. But, oh, there are many wonderful notes and many wonderful phrases.
After an act or so, she is warmed up. “Feelin’ it,” as basketball announcers say. And the crowd is behind her, raucously. It is a Saturday-matinée crowd, the most knowledgeable kind, the most appreciative kind—the most opera-mad. “Viva la diva!” some people shout.
“Pace, pace”—Leonora’s big aria at the end—is very, very good. (Price often included this aria in her recitals, by the way.) She is composed yet passionate. She summons everything she has, everything she knows. She hurls the maledictions like a pro. And, at the end of the closing B flat, she gives that special Leontyne yelp.
When she comes from behind the curtain to receive her ovations, she dodges a bouquet or two, and catches others. She has a big smile on her face. She looks beautiful. It has been a satisfying night, or afternoon.
Some while after she retired, I said to her, “I attended thirteen Price recitals.” “So few?” she answered. I could only reply, “I got a late start.”
Joining Price in this Forza is the tenor Giuseppe Giacomini (born in 1940). And the baritone Leo Nucci (born in 1942). (Incidentally, he retired only last year, at the age of seventy-seven.) Making a notable impression is Bonaldo Giaiotti, the bass who sings Padre Guardiano. What dignity.
La forza del destino is a strongly choral opera, and the Met’s chorus performs splendidly. I mention this for one reason, basically: Many say that the Met chorus has only recently risen to heights. Excellent as the current chorus is, 1984’s was nothing to sneeze at. On the contrary.
Let me go back to the overture: It is a stunning thing. A stunningly good thing. It grips you from the opening notes. It teems with emotion (controlled). It is solid and incisive. It is Toscanini tight, yet breathes. The conductor observes the arc of the piece (the overture) (and the opera to come, frankly). I have never heard the overture so exciting.
I wanted to listen to it again, immediately, which, in this streaming, you can. You can do whatever you like with forward, rewind, and pause.
The conductor? James Levine, age forty.
This Forza at large is not unlike the overture. As the score unfolds, it is taut, springy, and virile. Levine creates bristling tensions, or draws them out of Verdi. He—Levine or Verdi—can make tension out of the simplest Forza triplet. The final act is like an Italianate, Verdian storm.
I think it is important for people—for many of us—to see and hear something like this. For the last several years of his career, we saw Levine in a wheelchair, shaky: off and on, musically; up and down. It was good to see him on his feet, in 1984, blazing. There was a reason the music world was in awe of him (and it was, don’t let anyone fool you).
Back to the immortal ’tyne? Just about my favorite YouTuber is a man, or woman, who goes by “Oneguin65.” He (or she) has posted many performances of Leontyne Price, and other singers. Just this week, he posted an excerpt from a Price Forza—from the Met in February 1972. Listen to it here.
Prima donna assoluta. Well-nigh incomparable.