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Performances

24 Mar 2019

La forza del destino at Covent Garden

Prima la music, poi la parole? It’s the perennial operatic conundrum which has exercised composers from Monteverdi, to Salieri, to Strauss. But, on this occasion we were reminded that sometimes the answer is a simple one: Non, prima le voci!

La forza del destino, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

The Royal Opera House’s new production of La forza del destino, directed by Christof Loy and first seen at Dutch National Opera in 2017, had been hyped to the heights since the first moment it was announced that it would reunite Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann for the first time at Covent Garden since the soprano and tenor formed a triumphant threesome with the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in La traviata in 2008. The anticipatory buzz was amplified by gossip about tickets changing hand for crazy figures on re-sale sites, speculation about which star would cancel first, and rumours that Kaufmann had been a rare figure at rehearsals, with Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov - Netrebko’s husband, who shares the role of Don Alvaro - filling in at the dress rehearsal.

For once, though, a hyperbolic build-up did not culminate with bathos but with brilliance: consummately expressive singing which quite simply entranced and exhilarated. There is never any doubting the luxurious beauty and intense communicativeness of Anna Netrebko’s soprano but on occasion, as in last year’s Macbeth , I have longed for a little more precision to accompany the vocal glamour and shimmer. Here, however, making her role debut as Leonora, Netrebko had me transfixed with a performance in which drama was balanced by discipline, and interpretation was fired by intellect and intuitive insight in equal measure, casting a compelling vocal spell.

Netrebko Kaufmann Bill Cooper.jpg Anna Netrebko (Leonora), Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

From the first gestures of the dumb-show presented during the overture, Loy places Leonora at the centre of the drama and Netrebko’s vocal and physical definition of character was riveting. Though this Leonora was painfully wracked by conflicting desires and duties in ‘Me pellegrina ed orfana’, her Act 1 duet with Alvaro had an almost fierce directness. ‘Madre, pietosa Vergine’ began with a deep darkness, blossomed sweetly, then floated bewitchingly - an exquisitely elegant mezza voce - in ‘Vergine degli angeli’. Nebtrenko rose effortlessly above the orchestra’s throbbing climaxes, while the agonising intensity of ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ conveyed both Leonora’s fervour and her frailty with spellbinding magnetism.

Don Alvaro.jpgJonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Sweeping in through a window stage-right, as if to counter any doubts about his participation with a bold physical statement of his presence, Kaufmann was a heroic Alvaro, a little restrained at the start but expanding to encompass a magnificent range, vocally and dramatically. The tenor spins a heart-meltingly lovely line, by turns ardent and tender, the lyricism charged with tragic suffering, and, as demonstrated in Act 3’s ‘La vita e inferno’, has absolute control of his voice from the most impassioned fortissimo to the softest whisper, magically grading the diminuendo at the close. Ludovic Tézier’s Carlo was no less impressive, his glowing baritone equally commanding and absorbing as he unleashed a vengeful fury which was countered by smooth lyricism in ‘Urna fatale’; the extended duets of Act 3 - in which Kaufmann and Tézier reprised a partnership first formed in Munich in 2014 - were finely wrought dramatically and musically, and utterly compelling.

Carlo and Alvaro.jpgJonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro), Ludovic Tézier (Don Carlo). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

And, the casting luxuries did not stop there, with several singers reprising roles that they sang in Holland including American soprano Roberta Alexander who was a splendid Curra, strongly defined and impactful, and Italian tenor Carlo Bosi as the pedlar Trabuco who arrived to sell his wares with a chutzpah worthy of a Dulcamare. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Padre Guardiano was a growling dark foil to Leonora’s sweetness, while Alessandro Corbelli was excellent as Melitone, fun but never flippant, the text clearly enunciated and gracefully phrased. It’s a shame that the Marquis of Calatrava’s death, which triggers the fateful tragedy, prevented us hearing more of Robert Lloyd’s bass which conveyed a father’s love and his demand for submission with equal conviction. And, it was good to hear Jette Parker Young Artists, Michael Mofidian, as Alcalde. Veronica Simeoni, making her ROH debut, seemed not entirely comfortable in the role of Preziosilla: though she did her best to make ‘Al suon del tamburo’ a rousing romp and danced gamely in the Rataplan chorus, sporting emerald belly-dancer pantaloons and surrounded by somersaulting acrobats in spangly top hats, she struggled to project and to reach the upper echelons of the role securely and confidently.

Leonora and Marquis of Calatrava.jpgAnna Netrebko (Leonora), Robert Lloyd (Marquis de Calatrava). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

From the pit, Sir Antonio Pappano immediately ratcheted up the tragic intensity in a surging, heated overture, and crafted the ebbs and flows of the tragedy with consummate command. Whether carousing, warring or in devotional mood, the ROH Chorus were in fine voice and entered into the spirit of the lively, sometimes rather inconsequential, tableaux and crowd scenes.

Verdi abandoned the classical unity of time, place and action in La forza, thereby creating a headache for directors who must make varied locations spanning vast geographical distances, and visited over a period of many years, cohere. Then, there’s the problem of how to assimilate the broad humour within the prevailing tragic narrative. Rather than imposing a binding ‘concept’, Christof Loy and designer Christian Schmidt seem to embrace the disunity. The white marble walls of the Calatrava home that we visit in Act 1, subsequently fall though remnants of the mansion remain in the ensuing locales as the stage becomes a palimpsest of places and periods. Costumes allude to diverse epochs and sometimes seem designed to add to the ambiguity and inconsistency.

There are just two assertive directorial gestures, the first being an extended dumbshow during the overture. Here, atop and around the long table which slices across the floor of the Calatrava palazzo, the three main characters are seen as children. As the screen rises and falls three times, destiny plants the dart which will find its target many decades later; Leonora sits, head bowed, beside a small stature of the Virgin Mary which, enlarged and aloft, will cast a deep shadow over her life. Then, as the drama unfolds, Loy offers us recurring projections which zoom in on Leonora at the moment of her father’s accidental death; the moment which thus seals her fate. But, these ‘psychological close-ups’ are distracting and unnecessary: Verdi’s music tells us all we need to know - especially as here, when it is sung and played with such power and impact.

These directorial diversions don’t really matter, though, as the singing is so absorbing. Verdi may keep his hero and heroine apart for much of the opera, as we traverse through taverns, monasteries and war zones, but when Netrebko and Kaufmann are finally united in Act 4 it certainly feels like - if not ‘fate’ exactly - then very good fortune indeed.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: La forza del destino

Leonora - Anna Netrebko, Don Alvaro - Jonas Kaufmann, Don Carlo di Vargas - Ludovic Tézier, Padre Guardiano - Ferruccio Furlanetto, Fra Melitone - Alessandro Corbelli, Preziosilla - Veronica Simeoni, Marquis of Calatrava - Robert Lloyd, Curra - Roberta Alexander, Alcalde - Michael Mofidian, Maestro Trabuco - Carlo Bosi; Original director - Christof Loy, Associate director - Georg Zlabinger, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Designer - Christian Schmidt, Associate set designer - Federico Pacher, Lighting designer - Olaf Winter, Choreographer - Otto Pichler, Associate choreographer - Johannes Stepanek, Dramaturg - Klaus Bertisch, Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Master - William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London; Thursday 21st March 2019.

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