Opéra National de Paris 2018-19 Review: La Forza del Destino
Poor Direction & Concept Cast Shadow Over Strong Vocal Performances From Elena Stikhina, Brian JagdeBy David Salazar
(Credit: Julien Benhamou / ONP)
Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” is undeniably one of the most complex to stage. Not only is it a tremendous challenge for each of the major singers cast in the work, but it presents unique obstacles for any director who opts to take it on.
The opera, despite being by one the greatest opera composers in history, is rather massive in scope and despite a rather fast-moving plot, it is filled with scenes that halt the action altogether, making the work feel longer than it already is. The work itself feels rather lacking in dramatic cohesion as a result. In many ways it is his most ambitious opera as his aim was farther reaching than anything he achieved before or even after. Verdi’s intent was to contrast the private tragedy of the Calatravas with the larger war tearing apart an entire world around them. While the main heroes’ arc revolves around dark tragedy, Verdi’s depiction of the townspeople immersed in war is far lighter by comparison. The best directors (though there are almost few to none these days) manage to integrate these two opposing narratives into one another, allowing for a degree of cohesion, or at least a bigger picture takeaway for the viewer.
Jean-Claud Auvray, who directed the Opéra de Paris’ current production of “La Forza del Destino,” unfortunately does not manage this.
It’s not for a lack of trying. He sets the opera during the Italian revolution, which is around the time that Verdi wrote the opera. We are constantly reminded of this fact by Italian flags everywhere, even if the opera itself is set in Spain. At one point, the curtain rises on a sign that says “Viva V.E.R.D.I.,” which, of course, makes reference to Victor Emmanuele, Re D’Italia; this cry was common during those years when Verdi was a powerfully influential figure not only in opera, but Italian politics. The costumes are also fairly period-specific, which adds to the sense of a consistent time period. And there is sufficient visual variety at the close of the third act to keep the Wallenstein scene interesting and flowing.
The set is rather bare throughout, which works best in the first two acts of the opera that focus on Leonora’s plight. When the curtain rises, we are inside of the Calatrava household with a long table dominating the center of the frame. A “wall” features pictures of a woman in the blossom of her youth (presumably the missing mother to Leonora and Don Carlo) and another painting of Jesus Christ on the cross. It creates the sense of an old dwelling and it is only when the murder takes place at the end of the scene that the entire “wall” comes down, revealing emptiness behind it. Next up, we are in the Inn crowded with people and when this scene comes to an end, the entire stage becomes empty, save for Leonora.
This progression of scenery actually depicts Leonora’s story quite potently showing her household literally crumble, then showing her as an exile of society, and then finally, all alone onstage with nothing. Then the monks take up the stage emphasizing that the church will consume the rest of her life; it’s the only thing she will have from here on out.
But when Act three commences it all crumbles with Auvray and set designer Alain Chambon making one questionable design after another. A large fabric with an image of the moon appears behind Don Alvaro during his aria. It serves a solid function of separating him from the other soldiers playing cards on the opposite side of the stage and would suffice in this manner if not for the fact that it started to move as Alvaro walked across the stage. At that moment, this fabric became the sole focus of the scene, detracting the viewer’s attention from the singer in his big solo moment.
Not content with this, the director opted for a similar visual approach during “Solenne in quest’ora.” With Alvaro and Don Carlo downstage, the audience’s attention is immediately drawn away from them to see a parade of wounded soldiers making their way across the stage upstage. It probably would not be a point of distraction if this sort of action would have taken place throughout the scene leading up to the duet (or even at the tail-end of the duet as Alvaro and Carlo repeat their music and text), but it is a distinct feature of the duet from the start, telling the audience very explicitly “look here because this is moving and the singers are stationary.” Where do you think the audience’s eyes are going to be drawn? But more importantly, why would you want to shift the focus away from the lead characters?
The curtain comes down for Carlo’s “Egli è salvo (one of the best decisions on the night)” only for it to rise up during the next scene for the “Viva V.E.R.D.I.” sign. Unsurprisingly, it drew some laughs because it comes off as rather cheeky. Yes, it sets the time period of the opera, but it also screams for attention and likely caught some unsuspecting viewers off guard. Of course, this sign doesn’t last for more than the choral number, emphasizing its function as little more than a cry for attention and the ensuing duet between Alvaro and Carlo is played out on an empty stage. A curtain rises upstage to showcase what looks like terrain of some sort, but this also has no impact on the proceedings in any meaningful way, outside of somewhat changing the aesthetic. It was all the more jarring to see the curtain come down midway through the duet with the terrain background having absolutely no payoff.
The final act retains this very minimalism while simply adding a fallen Christ statue in the final scene. Leonora also comes out from under a massive fabric like a hiding rodent, sings her aria, and then crawls back under.
Misplacing The Overture
It is also essential to point out a special feature of this production – the overture.
Auvray decided to place the opening musical number AFTER the opening scene of the opera, arguably the most unfortunate choice of the evening. In doing so, Auvray created more problems for himself than necessary.
From a musical-dramatic standpoint, it completely undercuts the effectiveness of the opening scene. The fate theme permeates the overture, emphasizing its ever-present nature throughout the opera. It is a powerful character in and of itself in the musical realm. It haunts the listener and its appearances throughout the opera only further this sense of existential crisis that pervades the opera. Having it appear for the first time in the opera when Calatrava intercepts Leonora and Alvaro dulls its meaning. In this context, it is tied to a specific event and no longer a force of its own. In an opera that is aiming at a far grander picture than just the private tragedy of a few nobles, this choice undercuts what the opera represents. It contradicts the director’s own vision for his production.
But on a more practical audience experience, the overture seems completely pointless and unnecessary now in its new position.
Let’s draw a complete picture. The scene ends and the curtain comes down. Suddenly, the brass instruments explode into the theater and the audience is left to wonder – what will happen when the curtain rises. How will the overture further the story? What will it depict?
The most interesting visual experience during the overture was the constant head movements of maestro Nicola Luisotti as he led the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. The black curtain remained down and you could hear the set being changed as the music played. It now felt like overture’s placement was more of a staging convenience than a true dramatic decision.
It further dulled the start of the second act, which commences with those very same brass chords that announce the overture. When heard in the order that Verdi intended, it creates a chilling call-back after witnessing the death of Calatrava. In this context, after hearing them a few moments ago, they simply sound like the overture might start up again.
Finally, it made the opening scene seem like more of an afterthought, a minor prologue that took place a while ago, if you will. It is not. It is where the inciting incident that drives the entire drama takes place and in an opera where the main action tends to be rather fast-paced, this actually slows it down and undercuts its impact.
Ultimately, this is a case that demonstrates that sometimes, the person who originally wrote the work being interpreted, knew best.
Then there’s the direction of the scenes themselves, which seemed completely non-existent. To be fair, Auvray was not around for this revival, but the directions were reportedly kept intact by Stephen Taylor who was tasked with bringing back Auvray’s vision. The singers were clearly giving their best musically, but interactions between artists often felt prescribed and often lacked in spontaneity. Perhaps the most notable example was the big murder at the start of the opera. The gun gets laid on the table and the sound of the gun firing off actually came BEFORE it had even touched the table. Calatrava fell to the table and soprano Elena Stikhina, interpreting Leonora, walked over slowly to be with him. Her reaction to his being shot was minimal. The same for tenor Brian Jagde when the gun went off. When this kind of reaction is so pervasive throughout the production, it is hard to even look at the singers and their respective energies as the cause.
There were some exceptions, but on the whole, this often felt more like a concert version of the opera than a fully integrated dramatic work.
On the vocal side of things, it was a far more pleasurable evening.
In the role of Leonora was Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, who carried herself on stage with great poise and elegance. She has a gorgeous instrument that has brightness throughout her range. It often felt like Leonora was a bit heavy for her voice, especially in the lower areas where her sound tended to thin out. Even up top, there were instances where it felt like she was overpowered and unable to sustain high notes. This was most notable during the chorus of the pilgrims at the start of Act two. There were a few instances where she cut off some high notes early to get in an extra breath as she did her utmost to cut through the thick ensemble. During her aria, “Madre Pietosa Vergine,” her phrasing of “Deh, non m’abbandonar, pietà” tended to be choppy on the rising quarter notes, the voice losing brightness as it reached the upper notes in the phrase; the high A on both instances of the phrase felt a bit pushed.
But Stikhina’s quality came through in sections where she was allowed to luxuriate in a gentler legato line with softer orchestration. This included the opening aria “Me, pellegrina ed orfana,” “La vergine degli angeli,” and especially “Pace, pace.” With the first aria, she made a solid impression with a sweet sound and a beautifully connected legato line throughout the register. “La vergine degli angeli” was most notable for her pianissimo singing which drew you; here too, her line was flowing and connected from top to bottom. The fact that she started the passage so softly made the eventual build all the more effective from a musical and emotional standpoint. Finally, her rendition of the famed aria was another example of a flowing legato line, the voice at its most pure and beautiful. Even the final lines, projected over a crescendoing orchestra came off with great power.
As Don Alvaro, tenor Brian Jagde gave a vocal masterclass in singing one of the most challenging roles of the repertory. It isn’t always that you sit through a performance confident that a tenor will hit all the notes, but this was one such example. From his opening entrance to the final note, the tenor displayed confident vocalism. His sound, with its dark texture, projected potently into the house. The vocal line flowed seamlessly throughout with the tenor managing some strong musical effects. Arguably the best such example was the very end of the famed aria “La vita è inferno all’infelice.” The tenor expanded the final repetitions of “pietà di me,” with the last arpeggiation to the high A flat a rather lengthy one. It created tension in the line, especially since he sang the four notes in one breath and added a lengthy crescendo on the high note that was held throughout the entire orchestra coda, also slowed down as a result.
Another breathtaking moment from the tenor was the final high B natural at the close of the act, where he similarly expanded the phrases to create tension up to the big high note. He threw off the note with aplomb, bringing down the scene effectively. Among his most character-driven musical decisions was the punctuation of phrases in “Solenne in quest’ora” with a quicker cutoff, emphasizing the sense that Alvaro was on his last breaths.
The tenor’s interpretation did seem to lack a bit of the explosiveness that Verdi gives the character, particularly in the confrontations with Don Carlo. As Carlo revealed that he intended to kill Leonora in Act three, Verdi provides the tenor with repeated enunciations of “tacete” followed by “Voi pria cadrete,” which allows an avenue for Alvaro’s anger to grow and explode. Jagde didn’t quite build this moment, the enunciations all maintaining a similar expression, even if they were all accented and clear in execution. This was also visible in the final scene when Alvaro gives in and decides to fight Carlo to the death. This was a role debut run for Jagde and there is no doubt that with more experience and a stronger director, he will be able to develop Alvaro’s explosiveness with greater definition and clarity.
Zeljko Lucic is a go-to Verdi baritone around the world as he has championed nearly every major role by the composer. His Carlo is among his best interpretations, as he managed to infuse the character with aggression. This was particularly noticeable in his interactions with Jagde’s Alvaro, but also in his tendency to hold a lot of high notes for far longer periods than one might be accustomed to. These such choices, especially the high F flat on “Finalmente” in the final act duet, generated great vocal excitement, but also emphasized Carlo’s own lust for vengeance and power. Lucic was at his best during the second portion of his big aria, “Egli è salvo,” where he used all of his vocal resources to blast over the orchestra, each phrase an expression of his increasing desire for blood. He capped the aria with a series of stentorian high notes that brought him strong applause.
However, it wasn’t a perfect night for the baritone as many ascensions into the upper register resulted in flat pitch. This was especially noticeable during the first aria “Son Pereda, son rico d’honnore” where nearly every high note was flat and an entire section in the middle of the aria featured inconsistent intonation.
Stealing the Show
Mezzo-soprano Varduhl Abrahamyan also struggled with pitch throughout her first scene, particularly in the higher reaches of her voice. The middle tended toward a wide vibrato and the voice’s flexibility was inconsistent. Her repeated “guerra” on the phrase “Evviva la Guerra” sounded different every single time, as if the placement were being moved around each time; there was no fullness or consistency in the sound. And yet, she was arguably the singer having the most fun on stage and made the most of the choreography which she was given (which, to be fair to the other singers, was far more substantial). As such, she came off as a coquettish gypsy with tremendous joie de vivre. She openly flirted with other men around her, seeming to even win over Carlo for a night by the end of the opening scene.
In the final act, Abrahamyan sounded like a different singer, her wide vibrato in the middle registers no longer apparent and her higher range far more consistent with the rest of her sound. Once more, she was having a good time onstage, injecting necessary energy to the proceedings.
Also providing his own dose of energy to the opera was baritone Gabriele Viviani as Fra Melitone. His voice produced a fresh and easy baritone that, coupled with clear diction, made the comic role sparkle. Like Preziosilla, Melitone is also given a lot to do in his interactions with the crowd and Viviani took advantage of every opportunity to bully and cajole those around him. The grand finale of his big scene at the top of the fourth act was a particular highlight with his repetitions of such words as “bricconi” and “via di qua!” colored differently to build up an increased agitation; the audience ate it up, laughing throughout this scene as a result of his antics.
As the Padre Guardiano, bass Rafal Siwek displayed a sense of delicacy and calm in his vocal characterization. He was a stoic figure that would likely never be caught smiling, but nonetheless, there was a gentle aura that emanated from his smooth legato singing. Conversely, Carlo Cigni’s Marchese di Calatrava had a rugged vocal quality that made him seem fearsome and brutal. Rodolphe Briand displayed a vibrant tenor that was refreshing for Trabuco, a role that often sounds like it is being sung by tenors adding unnecessary nasal qualities to their singing.
In the pit, Nicola Luisotti tended toward quicker tempi throughout the evening, to solid results overall. There were undeniably some moments where it seemed things could get muddled and messy (the clarinet solo during the Allegro Brillante in the overture, where the accompanying triples were unfocused), but on the whole, it allowed for the opera to flow. While his tempo in the overture made the contrasts of the differing sections less pronounced, it did help in getting to the next scene quickly to mitigate some of the effects of shifting its placement. As is his tendency in many other Verdi operas, Luisotti did have moments where he would unleash the brass instruments over the entire orchestra (especially in the overture’s climax), creating imbalance, but it did create dramatic effect in punctuating chords.
That said, he showed tremendous generosity toward the singers throughout the night, allowing them to expand phrases as they desired and never overpowering them; in fact, in moments where it seemed inevitable that the orchestra might drown out a thinner sound (like Stikhina’s during the duet with the Padre Guardiano), he adjusted quickly to allow the artist greater vocal bandwidth. On the whole, as is related to my personal experience with his work, this was one of Luisotti’s best interpretations and the musical successes of this production are undoubtedly a result of his collaboration with the vocal artists.
Musically there is a lot to savor from this “Forza” production. And because it is not performed as often as it deserves, that is good enough. Hopefully future productions, or even revivals of this one, will take more risks with the staging to enable the work to truly come alive.