Sunday Times, 19 January 2014
Hugh Canning
Verdi: La forza del destino, München, Dez/Jan 2013/2014
An angel on my table  
"The Verdi year — 2013, the bicentenary of his birth — came and went without leaving much of an echo, in Britain at least. The Royal Opera revived Les vêpres siciliennes lavishly, in an eye-catching Stefan Herheim production, without finding singers to do complete justice to its vocal challenges; and the ever-enterprising Chelsea Opera Group gave us the rare Alzira — one of the few Verdi operas I have yet to see staged — in concert.

Even in Europe, the greatest Italian composer of the 19th century got shortish shrift. La Scala, Milan, where his earliest and latest operas were premiered, programmed lots of Verdi, and several new productions, but only his first surviving opera, Oberto, could count as offbeat. In Germany, where the revival of Verdi’s once-neglected masterpieces — Macbeth, Don Carlo, La forza del destino, Simon Boccanegra — began in the 1920s, only the Hamburg State Opera responded to the anniversary with imagination: a trittico verdiano of three “patriotic” early works, I Lombardi, I due Foscari and La battaglia di Legnano, in productions using common scenic elements by the British-based American David Alden.

Further south, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich mounted two headline new productions for its “dream” soprano-tenor pairing, Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann: Il trovatore at last summer’s Munich Opera Festival, and just before Christmas La forza del destino, arguably Verdi’s most problematic mature work. I caught the last performance of the current run last weekend, but it will be back for three more festival performances in June with the same cast. Booking for those opens at the end of this month, and they, along with Anna Netrebko’s stage debut as Lady Macbeth, will likely be the first shows to sell out.

Of all Verdi’s late-period operas, La forza del destino has suffered from a critical backlash. Less for its (mostly) magnificent score — its famous Overture has become background music for films such as Jean de Florette, and parody television commercials — than for its sprawling, epic (or episodic) dramaturgy. Verdi presumably intended it as a tribute to Russian opera of the period, as La forza del destino was commissioned by the Russian imperial court in St Petersburg in 1862. Valery Gergiev, in his now notorious “Balls-up in mascara” Verdi season of 2001 at Covent Garden, brought a replica of the original St Petersburg production in the opera’s original version.

Like most opera companies these days, the Bavarian State Opera gives La forza in its 1869 revision for La Scala, Milan — although it sensibly reverses the order of scenes in Act III to Verdi’s original plan, giving Don Alvaro time to recover from his “mortal” wound, sustained in battle, before having to confront his pursuer, Don Carlo, in a duel. Verdi presumably made the change to please Italian audiences with the rousing Rataplan chorus bringing down Act II, but the new order means that Alvaro has to fight immediately after life-saving surgery.

With the many unlikely coincidences that fire the drama, and locations that move the action from Spain to Italy and back, La forza del destino is widely considered a broken-backed drama (fans generally refer to the dramatic structure of the plot as “Shakespearean”, but Schiller’s Wallenstein’s Camp inspired the comic Friar Melitone’s sermon in the heart of the Italian war against the Austrians).
Although he makes minor cuts, Munich’s director, Martin Kusej, is the first in my experience to take the drama of La forza del destino entirely seriously. His set and costume designers, Martin Zehetgruber and Heidi Hackl, locate the action in near-contemporary times. The battle scenes hint at 9/11 and the War on Terror in a bombed-out building we view as if from above — Alvaro’s vision of Leonora ascending to heaven has her exiting from a fridge and walking up the back wall. However, he frames his entire production as a family drama, retaining the dining table around which Donna Leonora, her father, brother and their “confessor”, Melitone, are eating during the overture as an idée fixe throughout, symbolic of the Marquis of Calatrava’s inflated sense of honour — he is characterised as a mob capo — and his son’s lust for revenge when Alvaro accidentally shoots his father. Escaping from this dysfunctional family, Leonora seeks a fantasy father in the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) of a religious cult, with this role doubled by the singer of her father, Vitalij Kowaljow.
In this context, the infatuation of Harteros’s shiningly sung Leonora with Kaufmann’s dashing, long-haired Alvaro is more completely convincing than is usual. She is subject to religious obeisance and paternal will until he appears through her window, a romantic athlete, leaping onto the dinner table and literally sweeping her off her feet. As in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the HarterosKaufmann double act proves an optimum experience in their respective roles, even if neither has a classically Italianate sound. She is luminous — her final solo exquisitely phrased until she opens out excitingly for her menacing maledictions — and his tenor, gravelly to begin with, gains in colour and clarion attack as the opera proceeds. This Alvaro sounds like preparation for his forthcoming Otellos, a prospect to be relished on the basis of his thrilling performance here.

To have the fine Verdi baritone Ludovic Tézier as Don Carlo, the third principal, is luxury indeed, but Munich does well by the supporting roles, too. Kowaljow’s Marchese/Guardiano is solidly sung, Renato Girolami is a classic Melitone, and Nadia Krasteva brings vocal fireworks and sex appeal to the camp follower Preziosilla. The conductor, Asher Fisch — better known for his Wagner than his Verdi — delivers a more than reliable account of the score, but is perhaps just lacking the éclat of a great Italian maestro.

Even so, thanks to Kusej and his principals, this Forza amounts to something of a rehabilitation for the opera, and the happiest postscript to my Verdi year."

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