Festival Verdi 2022 Review: La Forza del Destino

Gregory Kunde & Amartuvshin Enkhbat Triumph in Verdi’s Epic

By Francisco Salazar

The final production of the Festival Verdi was “La Forza del Destino,” one of the most difficult of Verdi’s work to present.

Aside from its massive cast, the work also requires multiple set changes and an epic landscape. How a director goes about approaching it can be a huge challenge.

For the Festival Verdi, they found a great director in Yannis Kokkos.

Shadows & Simplicity

Kokkos’ production depends on simple minimalist tableaus lit with blacks and whites. In the first act, we saw a painting on stage left with a white open door in the middle. In the second act we saw a wide open space with tables, while in the second scene, a cross dominated on stage right with a door in the back. There was also a projection of a cross in the background as the cross of monks came into the scene for “la Vergine degli angeli.”

Act three saw destroyed buildings that were represented by black carveouts. The background saw projections of bombs going off and in the final scene with the encampment, Kokkos really experimented with the tarantella. The projections were demented, almost nightmarish as the heads of skeletons started spinning and eventually became distorted, emphasizing the chaos; adding to this were the dancers, who wore skeleton masks. It was perhaps the most visually stimulating moment of the evening and the most original.

In Act four, black dominated with simple cuts that gave it a look of a church and then a hilltop. The final lighting effect where everything turns to white was powerful as it gave a sense of calm and peace, which matched perfectly with Verdi’s score that ends with a heavenly chord.

While not the most revolutionary of productions, what kept this interesting was the way the director blocked each scene, making the chorus a central part of every tableau, and never leaving a single spot of the production empty.

The costumes were a mix of traditional and modern especially with the chorus of beggars in Act four, which were dressed in aged and dirty modern clothes. Leonora’s opening act gown was also elegant and beautiful, while Preziosilla’s first costume was of a modern Romani while the second costume was that of a soldier.

Two Dueling Forces

On this evening the Festival Verdi put together an incredible cast led by Gregory Kunde and Amartuvshin Enkhbat. Both were simply spectacular and you cannot really talk about one without the other, especially given that they share four duets. But first, their individual arias have to be addressed.

Gregory Kunde is a force of nature. When hearing him sing Alvaro, it is hard to believe that the tenor started his career as a Rossini and lyric tenor. His voice is so powerful and immense and yet at the same time flexible. He has high notes for days and as the evening progressed his voice continued to open up and brighten. When entered the stage with “Ah, per sempre, o mio bell’angiol,” his tone was bright and heroic before shifting to a lighter texture for “Pronti destrieri di già ne attendono,” ardently expressing his love for his Leonora. 

These youthful romantic lines soon turned to desperation during his big Act two aria “La vita e inferno all infelice.” Here Kunde opened with a raspy timbre during the recitative portion, emphasizing the pain and hopelessness in Alvaro. His high notes were like cries and he easily decrescendoed from fortes to pianos. In “O tu che seno agli angeli” his voice was elastic with gorgeous glissandi and eruptions of desolation on such phrases as “Che senza nome ed esule.” One felt Kunde’s emotion as he sang through this complex aria. And he was rewarded with an interminable ovation that saw him break character and share the applause with the clarinetist and the conductor. It was truly one of those moments in opera that will be hard to forget.

But Kunde was not the only one who was given a forceful ovation. Amartuvshin Enkhbat was also rewarded for his “Urna Fatale” with loud bravos. The Mongolian baritone has become one of the most in-demand singers in the world and for good reason. He is a true Verdi baritone with a booming tone, contrasted with silky legato phrasing.

During the opening “Morir! tremenda cosa!” you could hear Enkhbat’s trepidation and tremor at the discovery that his friend could be the man he has been looking for. And then in the “Urna Fatale,” Enkhbat’s voice was full of command and resonant tone. It was as if he was resigned. But what made the baritone’s interpretation all the more memorable was his use of the Verdi line as he started off forte and slowly shifted to a mezzo forte; the coloratura was incredibly solid and clear. The final “che all’atto indegno mi concitò” was full of emotion and fear.

As Enkhbat opened Alvaro’s bag and discovered Leonora’s purse, he delivered a terrified expression followed by a joyous “È salvo! Oh gioia!” His “Egli e salvo oh gioia immense” was sung with a forward tone that boasted his full power. In this moment you could see a baritone seeped with vengeance. More powerful was that Enkhbat sang the full cabaletta with no cuts and his voice only gained strength as he delivered the entire “Ambedue d’averno al dio.” He ended with the word “consacrar,” delivering a high note with a slight accent to emphasize Carlo’s decisiveness.

Enkhbat must also be commended for his first aria in Act two “Son Peredam son ricco d’onore” where he first appeared, demonstrating a gorgeous and elegant tone with perfect diction.

But what made Enkhbat and Kunde’s performance dynamic was their relationship through their duets. 

During the opening duet “Amici in vita e in morte,” both singers performed with exultant tones that expressed happiness and love for one another. Kunde’s top notes were strong and gleamed throughout the theater.

The second duet “Solenne in quest’ora” displayed heartfelt warmth between the baritone and tenor. While Kunde’s line was airy and weighty with a lamenting sound, Enkhbat was regal and warm. That balance between the two voices was ideal, with both playing off one.

Then there was the third duet which saw an impeccable evolution. In “Né gustare m’ è dato” Kunde began with a joyous tone upon seeing Enkhbat’s Carlo. On the other hand, Enkhbat was rigid in movement and angry in tone. Kunde’s “Oh tradimento!” brought fear in his voice and as he entered the melodic section, “No, d’un imene il vincolo,” Kunde’s Alvaro expressed hope through a bright tone and fantastic coloratura. 

Meanwhile, Enkhbat’s “Stolto! Fra noi dischiudesi” lacked any flexibility and was forward-moving with the tone focused on vengeance and darker colors. The duet climaxed with two fiery voices singing “Morte!” 

Once Carlo leaves the scene stopped by the soldier’s chorus, Kunde’s “L’oblio, la pace chiegga il guerrier” parola scencia” allowed us to see his character’s remorse and torment, capped by some intense high notes.

The final duet added another dimension to their relationship. “Le minaccie, i fieri accenti” showcased Kunde’s refined bel canto legato lines, which were nicely contrasted by Enkhbat’s pointed rebuttals. Although his Carlo was filled with rage, you could see the baritone soften as Kunde sang the lines “Come in cielo amar si puote. L’amo ancora, e s’ella m’ama.” Still, Enkhbat continued with accented phrases throughout the duet and as he continued to insult Kunde’s Alvaro, you could see Kunde’s Alvaro unravel, his voice taking on the most dramatic weight it had all night. Enkhbat’s responded with a snarling “Finalmente!” That was quickly followed by Kunde’s hesitatant “No, l’inferno non trionfi” before submitting to his rage, the two ending the duet with true fortissimo singing.

Imposing But Uneven

Liudmyla Monastyrska is having a renaissance of sorts. As with the first time I saw her in 2012, the soprano has an imposing persona that draws you in. But those moments are not consistent or continuous and on this night, the soprano proved uneven in her performance, drawing marked disapproval from the audience that even went so far as to (unfairly) boo her.

As she opened her first aria “Me, pellegrina ed orfana,” Monastyrska phtasing was elegant and lush-sounding. The pianissimo sound was solid and her full tone was powerful. But her movements were filled with stock gestures and her facial expressions were more suited to the icy princess Turandot. It was an expressionless opening that didn’t get better during the duet, which she sang with great technique but lacking in a true chest tone, particularly on “io t’amo” where Verdi asks the soprano to go to the lower depths. Throw in the fact that she shared little vocal or actoral chemistry with Kunde and things were off to a rocky start.

But when Monastyrska came out to sing her second aria “Madre, pietosa Vergine,” something seemed to have changed. The soprano sang with passion and incredible commitment. Her line continuously grew with feeling until the climactic and devastating “pietà Signor, pietà!” One understood the suffering that Monastyrska’s Leonora was going through and it seemed that the soprano had finally arrived.

But that quickly waned during the duet with Padre Guardiano as she seemed to sing beautiful notes but didn’t quite match Marko Mimica’s intensity. “La vergine degli angeli” was sung with an unbalanced piannissimo sound that started with a lot of straight tones followed by delayed vibrato. That led to many flat notes and some very questionable phrasing. It didn’t help that the male chorus was more consistent in its phrasing, which only brought attention to her sloppiness. 

And, unfortunately, the iconic “Pace Pace mío dio” was also disappointing, played rather straight and safely. The opening “Pace,” a place for sopranos to embellish musically with diminuendos and crescendos, was just sung forte. The middle section was sung with a nice tone but lacked any development or dramatic build. Dynamic contrasts were missing. And the climactic moment “La sconsolata vita … Ma chi giunge? Chi profanare ardisce il sacro loco?” was sung with full force; however, the lack of build undercut the potency of this moment. 

Phenomenal Supporting Cast

Annalisa Stroppa’s Preziosilla brought tremendous energy as she danced around the stage in a manner that brought the opera alive during the opening of Act two. Her voice is captivating as she sang with such flexibility; it bloomed as she entered the higher register, especially on the high C. Her “Viva la Guerra” was filled with spunk as she shifted up and down her register with ease, all while dancing and flirting with the chorus and Don Carlo. 

In Act three, Stroppa’s Preziosilla evolved into a strong army girl craving battle and war. The flirtatious qualities were gone and were instead replaced with brashness and vigor. Stroppa’s voice also grew in size and the chest voice was strong, especially in “Venite all’indovina.” And just as her voice grew she still maintained the legato line and impressive trills. There was also an impressive flexible sound in the coloratura line and outstanding high notes, particularly during the “Rataplan” which Stroppa delivered with top-notch enunciation.

In the role of Padre Guardiano, Marko Mimica brought a youthful quality to the character with his booming bass. His voice is dark but there is some lightness to it, that was particularly present during the duet with Leonora, “Or siam soli … Infelice, delusa, rejetta.” During the Act four trio, his smooth lines contrasted the agitated ones by Alvaro and Leonora, providing a great dramatic contrast. Mimica did provide an ominous low note in his brief duet with Fra Melitone that was quite impressive and resonant.

As a foil to Guardiano, Roberto de Candia sang the role of Melitone with spunk and sarcasm. His diction was impeccable and you could see how he accented many lines to deliver this kind of witty characterization. In his big solo moment in Act four, “Il resto, a voi prendetevi” De Candia kept a clear tone during the patter verses. It was so revelatory to hear such clarity in the vocal line of this fast-paced piece. And then when Mimica and De Candia sang their duet, the contract between Mimica’s long and full bass sound and Candia’s more comic staccato was striking.

As Trabucco, Andrea Giovannini sang with a light lyric tenor as he strutted around the stage selling products; at one point he even started jumping around. 

The chorus was outstanding all evening. They went from being vivacious students to peaceful and divine monks and suffering soldiers. Then they were battling soldiers and finally, they were impoverished townspeople full of suffering and resentment. Having to change characters this much during every act is truly an act of consummate virtuosity and the chorus passed that test with flying colors. 

Roberto Abbado led an outstanding performance of Verdi’s masterpiece with delicacy and drama. His overture started with the impending doom of the Destiny motif and then swiftly turned to the nostalgic theme the tenor sings in the final duet. That evolved into the melodic theme from the soprano’s second aria with the violins playing delicately and eventually turning to the dramatic crescendo in Verdi’s writing. The theme from the sopran-bass duet was a huge contrast as Abbado turned to a lighter sound and allowed the harp accompaniment to be heard, allowing an angelic color to enter the atmosphere. The coda was played with a swift tempo that combined delicacy with dramatic force. 

Other moments in Abbado’s conducting that were standouts included each time the destiny motif reappeared. Every time that motif made an appearance, Abbado seemingly moved the tempo forward with greater force. The cello solo in “Me, pellegrina ed orfana” was filled with gorgeous portamenti that gave the aria a duet-like feeling and the clarinet wept as it opened  “La vita e inferno all infelice.” 

The final chords were also heavenly and ethereal as Abbado held them out into a slow diminuendo. The diminuendo was so long that some audience members jumped the gun and applauded before sound had faded away, prompting others to quiet them rather forcefully. It was magical to see Abbado and the ensemble slowly digest these chords and before he slowly put down his baton.

In all this was a special “Forza” that benefited from a strong cast and a nonintrusive production that made for a magical evening.


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