The Times, January 6 2014
Neil Fisher
Verdi: La forza del destino, München, 22. Dezember 2013
La forza del destino, Bavarian State Opera, Nationaltheater, Munich 
La forza del destino at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
At the end of the Verdi-Wagner anniversary year the Bavarian State Opera pulled off an extraordinary feat. Did you think opera only embraced faith, blood, sex and guilt in Wagner’s Parsifal? Martin Kušej’s searching production of La forza del destino reveals that his Italian contemporary went there 20 years before.

The result is not comfortable viewing but it goes no farther than Verdi did himself. “La vita è inferno,” sings Alvaro, or “life is hell”. Here this is not Italian hyperbole but understood honestly. The war that flings around the protagonists of The Force of Destiny is messy, atrocious and familiar: Martin Zehetgruber’s designs reference the splintered steel girders of the destroyed World Trade Center. The use of 9/11 imagery is by now a familiar trope, but Zehetgruber’s gravity-defying sets almost seem to catch the cast in mid-freefall as civilisation implodes.

A world infected by constant terrorism is also a plausible context for the way in which the characters in Forza seem to spin around each other without recognition or understanding. Jonas Kaufmann’s traumatised Alvaro and Anja Harteros’s equally damaged Leonora are on opposite sides: the former becomes a freedom fighter, possibly of Islamic persuasion (though it’s rarely emphasised, Verdi’s librettist originally made him a half-caste Inca), while Leonora returns to the harsh Christianity of her repressive family. Verdi’s queasy feelings about organised religion can rarely have found a more appropriate realisation than the spooky cult evoked here: a barefoot chorus who give Leonora a full-body baptism. And yet, helped by Asher Fisch’s diaphanous, long-breathed conducting, the message of compassion and expiation shines movingly through. Again, this is not how one is used to hearing Verdi, but it’s done with sincerity and élan.

This is a luxurious ensemble. Kaufmann and Harteros are both on top form, he husky and neurotic, she floating some sublime pianissimos while saving plenty of power for the big moments. A stylish Ludovic Tézier, as the couple’s nemesis Don Carlo, is terrifically impassioned too and it’s a mark of this production’s clarity of purpose that he seems as much a victim as everyone else. I warmed less to Renato Girolami’s granite-voiced Melitone and Nadia Krasteva’s hammy Preziosilla — the fun-loving gypsy is perhaps the one character Kušej can’t fathom — but Munich has done Verdi proud here. Two more performances before the production returns in July.

 back top