Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” has had an uneven performance history despite containing some of the composer’s most memorable music, not least its well-known overture, made famous through concert performances, and the emotionally charged duets that characterize the work. The problem, however, stems not from its music, but from its sprawling structure and the complex tensions that drive the narrative.
Too often directors fail to highlight the underlying historical dynamics which shape Alvaro, Carlo and Leonora’s fates, as they are tossed hither thither by forces outside their control, preferring instead to accept the role that chance plays in the unfolding drama or reducing it to a single motive, such as racism or family honor. Obviously, such factors are relevant and play a crucial role, but Verdi and Piave created a scenario that stretches over many years, moves across national boundaries, is acted out against a backdrop in which the vicissitudes of war also weigh heavily, and where subsidiary characters appear, disappear and reappear, each with their own concerns and influences. And it is within this context that the main characters interweave their own stories. The drama, on which we are asked to focus is, therefore, in effect a minor event in the great scheme, and the destinies of the protagonists are subject to far greater forces than the personal. To successfully bring this to life on stage is, however, no easy task.
In this production, at the Bayerische Staatsoper, said task has fallen to the director Martin Kusej, to provide a convincing and unified production, that overlays its episodic nature, that successfully highlights the multi-layered nature of the work, whilst simultaneously allowing the central drama to unfold in a believable and meaningful manner.
Connecting Through War & Church
And Kusej did not disappoint! His production was so deeply thought through that it would be impossible to do it justice in an article of this size. The defining context which Kusej used to frame the narrative was the West’s war on terror. In the hands of a less capable director, this may well have come across as a piece of gratuitous opportunism, which was certainly not so in this case. The scenes of violence and torture in Act 3, set in Abu Ghraib, were graphic and disturbing, and successfully helped to explain Carlo’s degenerating mental state, and made his undying obsession with revenge thoroughly believable. The first scene of Act 2, normally set in a tavern, was shifted to a bombed out structure in which the chorus was used to portray people displaced by war, tired and disheveled and in need of water. Not only does this fit neatly into the production, but also helps connect the fragmented narrative, by linking Acts 2 and 3 more closely.
Yet, this was only one of Kusej’s themes. Overlaying the whole production was the heavy hand of the church, and its all-pervading influence, an influence that is shown to be, at best, ineffective as it fails to protect Leonora and Alvaro, and at worst, interfering and hypocritical, as it continually changes the face it shows to the world. This was achieved in a variety of ways, but most effectively by playing with the characters’ identities. After the death of the Marquess of Calatrava, Leonora flees and seeks a place of isolation in a monastery. She meets with Padre Guardiano, who is played by Vitalij Kowaljow, who also plays the role of Calatrava. They have morphed into a single character, even to the point of taking on identical specific gestures, as the Church takes on the role of father. In his dealings with other characters, however, Padre Guardiano presents different faces, sometimes even that of a mafioso-type businessman. In Act 3, scene 3, Fra Melitone, the comical, petty, grumbling, cleanly shaven friar, becomes a totally different character with long hair and a beard, more akin to the arch-hypocrite Rasputin, as he harangues the soldiers and the whores. The overall effect of questioning identities, not only encourages a more skeptical attitude towards the Church’s role and its ambitions within the work but also helps to tighten the narrative.
Moreover, throughout the work Kusej successfully employs a variety of devices to link the disconnected acts and scenes in imaginative and illuminating ways in order to further overcome this problem, going so far as to alter the sequence of events in Act 3, and taking certain liberties with the timeline, such as having Carlo, as a young child, witness the death of his father, and of having the dead body of Calatrava remain in the center of the stage throughout the next scene. Yet, it is the fundamental theme of war, with its ever-present threat of physical and psychological violence, alongside the all-pervading influence of the Church, that act as unifying forces, and allow the drama to unfold, transcending the jarring effects that are normally caused by the abrupt shifts in location and the narrative. A further result of Kusej’s approach is that the role played by chance and coincidence are significantly downplayed, rendering the resulting absurdities largely invisible.
Difficult to Improve Upon
On the musical side, the Bayerische Staatsoper brought together a star-studded cast, that would be difficult to improve upon. Two Bayerische Staatsoper stalwarts with strong Munich connections, Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, played the doomed lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, while Simone Piazzola played Don Carlo with Vitalij Kowaljow as the Marquess di Calatrava and Padre Guardiano, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla and Fra Melitone as Ambrogio Maestri. The orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper was conducted by the Israeli, Asher Fisch.
The crowning performance of the evening was undoubtedly that of Anja Harteros, whose acting and singing were simply stunning. Her portrayal of Leonora as the young woman, cast out into the world, frightened, vulnerable and fragile, whose only hope rests in the protection of the church was first class. Dressed in a dark plain, somber dress, tied back hair, Harteros was the epitome of pious, yet sorrowful resignation, who is awaiting a better life in the world to come. Her acting was generally understated, and this fit well when set alongside the emotional, testosterone-fuelled blood-feuding of Alavao and Carlo. Her vocal interpretation, however, contained no such understatement, allowing her voice to carry, in full, the ebb and flow of her emotional state. Using her considerable technique and the natural beauty of her voice she put in a truly dramatic performance. In the lower register her voice is warm and dark, yet brightens and positively shines in the upper register. Her ability to vary tone and dynamics are formidable. The start of Act 2, scene 2 perfectly illustrates her art, which sees Leonora outside the monastery: she sings a recitative, “Son giunta! Grazie, o Dio!.” Although only a short section it helps the audience understand Leonora’s emotional state. Harteros displayed her substantial skills as she attacked the lines allowing her voice to soar, wonderfully capturing the relief she feels at arriving at a place of refuge, and then, as she gives thanks to God her voice immediately dips, becoming warmer and calmer. Over the next few lines, she surfs an emotional tidal wave, requiring a high level of interpretive ability, a level of ability she possesses in abundance and employs with apparent ease, as she varied her intonation, dynamics, and coloring, almost on word by word basis. The overall effect was thrilling, and prepared the ground for the famous aria “Madre, Madre, pietosa Vergine,” which she also delivered with aplomb, although spoilt ever so slightly by her climbing onto a table and lifting up a cross, which gave the impression that she was glorifying God, rather than begging for His mercy. Harteros’ degree of musical and dramatic awareness was clearly displayed, as she weighed every phrase, every word keenly. In the Act 4 aria “Pace, pace” she clearly sacrificed a certain degree of beauty for dramatic effect, the long smooth melody compromised in order to convey her intense sadness at the way in which fate had been so cruel to her. A choice perfectly suited to the values of the production.
As Ardent As They Come
So much has been written about Jonas Kaufmann over the past few weeks, following his widely praised role debut as Otello, that expectations are running high. No doubt the crowd outside the theater looking for tickets are, in part, a testament to his star status. As Alvaro, Kaufmann is required to make a full-blooded stage entrance, with no time for a few warm up lines, and launch into the duet, “Ah per sempre” with Leonora, which is in turns ardent, suspicious and imploring. Of course, this was not a problem for Kaufmann, who is guaranteed to bring energy and a high level of intensity to his singing, and sounds best when singing at full throttle. He immediately began to sweep Leonora off her feet. The two have a natural chemistry and their voices complement each other beautifully, although at times their physical coordination seemed a bit wooden as they struggled to move in tandem. Kaufmann possesses a dark, rich, warm timbre with a particularly appealing lower register. His phrasing is delicate and nuanced. His dynamic control masterful.
If, however, you had to select one adjective to describe his performance as Alvaro it would have to be ardent. He really did come across as the archetypical tenor; passionate and insistent, courageous and energetic, and physically looked the part with long flowing hair and solid physique. Notwithstanding his many qualities, Kaufmann did not appear to be in top vocal form. His upper register showed occasional signs of stress and his transitioning between registers sounded a little awkward. These were minor blemishes, however, and did little to detract from a very exciting performance. His acting was magnificent in the scenes requiring a high level of intensity. This was particularly notable in the scenes when Alvaro and Carlo confront each other, but overall he tended to be one-paced and lacked variation; whether fighting Carlo or on the threshold of death after being wounded we were presented with the same ardent, intense and energetic Alvaro.
A Perfect Adversary
With Kaufmann as your rival, playing the part of Don Carlo is always going to be a tough call. Simone Piazzola can be extremely pleased, however, with his performance in the role. Although a little underpowered at first he grew into the role as the evening progressed, and by Act 3 was in scintillating form, topping his performance with the aria “Un fatale del mio destino,” in which his intense hatred of Alvaro was palpable. We watched as Piazzola turned in a stunning dramatic portrayal of a man whose psychological edifice was crumbling before our eyes – in fact, so powerful was his presentation that he almost seemed to change physically. Standing front of stage his effort and concentration were visible and the results impressive. His voice darkened, twisted and turned and left no one in doubt that here was a man bent on revenge at any cost. Nor did Piazzola play a secondary role to Kaufmann in their duets, matching him in quality at every turn. Although occasionally their singing was not completely synchronized, they compensated with a competitive intensity that generated an electrifying sound.
As the Marquess of Calatrava and Padre Guardiano, Vitalij Kowaljow was not only required to essay two characters, although admittedly presented as a single character, but was required to portray Padre Guardiano as a multifaceted character. This proved to be well within Kowaljow’s abilities. He exudes the confidence of a seasoned professional and possesses a secure, strong bass to match, which he used to great effect, coloring the voice to accentuate the changing nature of his characters. His second act duet with Leonora, “Or siam soli” proved to be one of the many highlights of the evening, in which both Vitalij and Harteros performed superbly. As they gazed in opposite directions, the distance between them was captured perfectly in their voices, singing on different planes, yet in perfect balance with each other.
3 Different Characters
The role of Fra Melitone was undertaken by Ambrogio Maestri, and owing to the nature of the production, proved to be an unusual test, requiring him, in effect, to portray three different characters: firstly, in the role of Fra Melitone; secondly, as the firebrand monk admonishing the sinners in Act 3; and lastly, in the added non-speaking role of a priest, who was a dinner guest of Calatrava in the opening act. Maestri proved himself to be a consummate actor, bringing the requisite petty small-mindedness and comic elements to Melitone, anger and moral superiority to the monk and solemnity to the priest. Maestri, who possesses a strong, secure baritone also proved himself to be an excellent interpreter, altering the color and intonation of the voice appropriately to capture the different personalities and, in the case of Melitone, his different moods.
The young Bulgarian singer Nadia Krasteva put in a sterling performance as Preziosilla. She has a powerful flexible mezzo, with a strong confident stage presence, which is crucial in this role as she must dominate proceedings. Her rendition of “Al suon del tamburo” was of a high quality and allowed her to show off her ample vocal talents. Her portrayal of a Preziosilla as a woman of the world, skilled in many fields and able to manipulate the various situations as they arise was thoroughly convincing. She was particularly dominating in every sense of the word during Act 3, where she is seen parading her troupe of prostitutes around the stage, pulling her own soldier along on a lead. Of particular interest, however, was her leading of the “Rataplan” chorus; the paean to the glories of war, sung with the stage covered in corpses. As she looked around the stage at the realities of war, Preziosilla becomes less and less confident, her voice wonderfully reflecting her inner doubts, as Krasteva deliberately allowed her voice to lose its focus.
The minor roles of Curra, Trabuco and the Surgeon were played by Heike Grotzinger, Matthew Grills and Igor Tsarkov respectively. All made creditable contributions, their acting and singing maintaining the high standard of the overall production.
The Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Asher Fisch delivered a clear, well-defined sound, producing a delicate and sensitive reading of the score. Fisch maintained a good balance within the orchestra and managed the dynamics and tempi well. Singers were always well supported and were never allowed to be drowned out by the orchestra.
Overall this was “La Forza del Destino” right out of the top drawer. The singing was intense, dramatic and of high quality, with no perceivable weak links, and supported by an excellent performance from the pit. Moreover, it succeeded in its most problematic area – in successfully integrating the personal narrative of Leonora, Alvaro and Carlo within the wider framework of the piece. The performance began with the Calatrava family saying grace before they sat down to eat, a crucifix standing in the middle of the table, and ended with Alvaro, having been redeemed, walking off the stage and throwing the crucifix into a pile of forgotten old crosses.