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La Forza del Destino (Opéra national de Paris)
13 Dec 2011

Drapes ‘n’ Drops in Paris Forza

Paris Opera has lavished quite a monumental staging on Verdi’s musically rich (and Piave’s dramatically vapid) La Forza del Destino.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino

Il Marchese di Calatrava: Mario Luperi; Leonora: Violeta Urmana; Don Carlo: Vladimir Stoyanov; Don Alvaro: Marcelo Alvarez; Preziosilla: Nadia Krasteva; Padre Guardiano: Kwangchul Youn; Fra Melitone: Nicola Alaimo; Curra: Nona Javakhidze; Mastro Trabuco: Rodolphe Briand; Conductor: Philippe Jordan; Director: Jean-Claude Auvray; Set Design: Alain Chambon; Costume Design: Maria-Chiara Donato; Lighting Design: Laurent Castaingt; Choreography: Terry John Bates; Chorus Master: Patrick Marie Aubert.


Forza is performed seldom enough that my one and only other encounter with it was Houston's 1973 production. I figure that once about every forty years, I can sit through the illogicalities of — why not say it — a patently stupid story with plot holes big enough to drive a Lamborghini through, in order to savor some of Verdi's auspicious writing. Oddly enough, there were two surprising similarities between the two versions I encountered. Both were played on a raked rectangular platform unit set that twisted up to form a back wall to the playing space, and both opted to begin the piece with Scene One and interpolate the overture after it.

Set designer Alain Chambon has skillfully managed to create an epic sense of stagecraft with economy of means, and has drawn on a color palette and textures that evoke the Golden Age of Spanish painting (Murillo, Velasquez, Zurbaran). This was largely achieved with beautifully painted drops and artfully draped heavy curtains. A singularly haunting Corpus Christi hovered over one scene above center stage (with its back to us) only to later have the same over-sized plaster image discarded absently on the mountainside as Leonora huddles under a huge fabric (her "cave") on the opposite site. Gorgeous imagery. The opening scene was not in the heroine's bedroom, but rather played out at the conclusion of a stiff, tense family formal dinner. The stunningly painted drop backing the impossibly long dining table seemed to announce that we would be seeing a traditional theatrical presentation. However, when the Marchese returned to discover the lovers, he angrily ripped the whole thing down off its pipe, and visually the piece was jump started into a splendidly suggestive approximation of subsequent locales.

Laurent Castaingt designed elegantly atmospheric soft-edged lighting, which contributed mightily to the chiaroscuro effect. Maria-Chiara Donato devised uncommonly flattering costumes for her principals, notably for Violeta Urmana's Leonora whom was first treated to a sumptuous, figure flattering dark federal blue gown, with a draped shawl conveying social status and femininity. Her male disguise was similarly well-tailored, aptly representing the effect without being slavishly "masculine." I have never seen the soprano costumed to better effect. While the Dons and the Calatrava household were all muted, jewel-toned elegance and the clerics all earth-toned, sober penitence, Ms. Donato unleashed a welcome extravagant riot of colors for the crowd scenes including a vividly clad, uninhibited Preziosilla.

For his part, director Jean-Claude Auvray told the implausible story as though he was totally convinced by it. In service to the characters, Mr. Auvray mined whatever drama was in the given situation and presented it clearly and with focus. He managed the traffic in the crowd scenes with considerable skill, and for once, we always knew where we should be looking. If characterizations were a little generic, well, the creators made them so. And if Jean-Claude slipped into a cliché or two or operatic groupings, well, they became clichés because they worked! The only truly ineffective moment of the night came with the ineffectual sword fight between the tenor and baritone which was little more than a half-hearted, clinking purse fight. (Actually, that is to insult purse fights, so lame the effort was.) The staging was all that was needed, then, and the technical elements were more surpassingly beautiful than expected, but where the company scored biggest was where it really counted. Prima la musica!

Conductor Philippe Jordan just goes from strength to strength. His passionately felt, resplendent reading urged all concerned to summon up one of the most musically exciting nights I have spent in the Bastille. The thrice-familiar overture crackled, popped, churned and soared with a burning intensity, and it elicited such a sustained roar of approval that it threatened to keep us from ever hearing the rest of the score! And so it went all evening long, Maestro Jordan giving the impression that the piece might have been written to the strengths of his responsive orchestra and his first rate soloists.

Marcelo Alvarez was indeed a forza to be reckoned with as Don Alvaro. His meaty tone soared above the staff with full, gleaming Verdian presence. He also commands a rich middle voice that was put to excellent use in this tricky role. Everything about his technique seemed hooked up and well founded, and he brought a seamless beauty to the numerous phrases that arc through the passaggio to above the staff. I don't know who the leading Verdi tenor might be these days, but Marcelo deserves serious consideration. Violeta Urmana may have staked her Fach transition from mezzo to soprano on the gamble that we needed more accomplished divas who could sing these spinto parts. She was right. And Leonora fits her like a glove. Having admired her in Vienna's Chenier I was less happy with last year's Paris Macbeth. But no equivocation here, Ms. Urmana has all the ripe low notes in place, her middle is vibrant, and her forays in higher territory encompass every demand from floating, pure pianos, to the hurled curse at the end of Pace, mio Dio. What a shame the composer gave the lovers so little to sing together, since Violeta and Marcello were exceptionally well-paired.

As Don Carlo, Vladimir Stoyanov showed off a forward-placed, imposing baritone that excelled in all but the highest notes. Here, he used a ‘poosh-em-uppa-Tony’ sort of approach that was more about reliable volume than complete control. A little rounding of the tone might stand him in better stead, but Mr. Stoyanov was nevertheless a solid Carlo. Kwangchul Youn brought his warm, mellifluous bass to Padre Guardiano, and his accomplished vocalism helped make the final trio one of the show's high points. The animated Nicola Alaimo wrung every bit of buffo humor out of Fra Melitone as he dominated his every scene. His solid, brassy bass was a nice contrast to Mr. Youn. Nadia Krasteva's ripe, sultry mezzo was a perfect fit for Preziosilla and she knew every inch of the role, giving it her all in an assured portrayal. However, I always feel that the poor mezzo sings her lungs out, prances and pouts, ‘rat-a-plans’ herself into a stupor and in the end, nothing adds up to anything substantial. Mario Luperi's authoritative, secure bass sounded appropriately paternal as the Marchese. Rodolphe Briand contributed a memorable turn as Trabuco.

No one will ever make La Forza del Destino work completely. But thanks to Paris Opera's exciting design concepts, no-nonsense direction, and abundant musical wealth, this is surely as good as it gets.

James Sohre

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