Royal Opera House 2018-19 Season Review: La Forza del Destino
Anna Netrebko & Jonas Kaufmann Can Do Little To Salvage Kitschy ProductionBy Sophia Lambton
This review is for the performance on March 24, 2019.
The crux of its concept a curse, Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” relies on motifs as portentous as ravens. With its harrowing theme of inescapable fate rearing its head in the overture, the early murder of the Marquis of Calatrava heralds the “maledizione:” a hounding lethal curse that will hunt our protagonists down to their deaths. Though the music lacks the eeriness of the later, musically maturer “Otello,” its persistently gloomy foreshadowing leaves it bereft of a much-needed luminousness.
A conception of the opera staged entirely in black and white could be plausible. The music evokes backdrops of glistening checkered floors, marble staircases in the mansion, a Gothic monastery for Padre Guardiano. Instead, director Christof Loy employs a loud approach in his production, substituting introspection with crazed bursts of noise and saturating all parts of the stage with tasteless, cringe-inducing choreography.
Forte At the Cost of Ample Legato Line
But his is not the spectacle’s sole vice. Priming herself for this burdensome, endlessly suffering dramatic role, Anna Netrebko applies colossal vocal wealth to Donna Leonora; frequently far too much so. Her instrument radiates throughout the auditorium, bouncing off the design’s only virtue – tremendous acoustics. During crowd scenes and the altercations between Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tézier as Don Alvaro and Don Carlo respectively, the impenetrable richness of her mountainous soprano is most sorely missed.
Nevertheless, despite Netrebko’s uninhibited, full-blown, somewhat unvarying emotionality, crinkles in the vocal line are laid bare far too often. Pushing her voice to the cusp of its potency, there are moments when Netrebko’s instrument veers fractionally off-pitch – such as the beginning of “Me pellegrina ad orfana,” the first of Leonora’s self-pitying arias. Pumping her diaphragm to emit loud notes of panic, Netrebko opts for fortissimo over legato. One evidently doesn’t have to trump the other; in her performance, nonetheless, it’s an inevitable outcome. Extra breaths are interspersed continuously throughout the vocal line: quick and heavy, they frequently cut little holes in the drama.
Given her manifest vocal strength, Netrebko could easily utilize the same reliable breathing technique to produce longer, more flexible phrases with changing dynamics and motley expression. With a slick chest voice, words such as the unusually musically dark “Sì, mio Alvaro, io t’amo, io t’amo” (“Yes, my Alvaro, I love you, I love you”) come out the most determined and secure.
In this regard the reckless cunning of last season’s Lady Macbeth, with its copious use of the low register, was more convincing than her assumption of the overly vulnerable personage Leonora. In the scant diminuendi we hear – such as the start of the softer aria, “La vergine degli angeli,” there are flecks of the character’s innocent disposition. But phrases such as “Perdona al mio peccato” (“Forgive my sin,”) – addressed to the Virgin Mary in prayer – are executed with paradoxical vocal arrogance.
More Vocal Trade-Off
Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Alvaro similarly trades in a potential legato and bending dynamics for a largely homogeneous, declamatory voice. His euphoric declaration of love “Ah, per sempre, o mio bell’angiol… (“Ah, forever my angel…”)” is performed with the same strength of volume as most other notes.
Lacquering certain parts with either affected breathiness or near-falsetto – such as the start of the mournful prayer, “O tu che in seno agli angeli (“O you, who dwell among the angels”),” Kaufmann struggles with high notes and in the middle register opts sadly to neglect use of diminuendo. Frequently his instrument sounds constrained; sometimes – as in the imploration from the aforementioned aria, “Soccorrimi” (“Help me”) – it veers on cracking.
In the antagonistic role of Don Carlo, Ludovic Tézier makes the most of the declamatory bass register in his baritone voice and an unflappably virile physique. Standing opposite Kaufmann’s Don Alvaro, whose right leg is bent and turned to face the audience inexplicably during the “Amici in vita e in morte” (“Friends in life and death”) duet, Tézier’s staunch posture inarguably personifies his villainous role.
With the assumption of diminuendo and pace changes in the vocal line, he inserts ominousness into his instrument with subtle but noticeable emphasis on words such as “che meco morrà” (“[the secret] that will die with me.”) Among the cast, his is the only character who emanates bad auspices.
Ferruccio Furlanetto infuses listeners with empathy as Padre Guardiano. On one hand, vibrato is well-employed in the nether depths of his bass to create the impression of the Father’s authority; on the other, the evenness in his legato renders his the only calming presence.
As the gypsy entertainer Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni punctuates the lines of her role well and paints a commanding and slick lower register despite leaving raspy top notes not entirely unscathed.
Dramatic Potpourri & Kitsch
Unwinding the opera’s setting into a downward spiral of chaos, Christof Loy’s concept for the work remains obscure in his potpourri, kitsch and disheveled production. Why must the audience watch the same scene of a murder they are witnessing onstage transpire simultaneously on film behind it? Why must the film be shown slow-motion – comprising opera’s theatrical, broad gestures, incompatible with the silver screen – so that it looks as though we’re watching not a work of music but a daytime soap opera?
Incessant choreographic sequences, apparently mimicking routines a lot tawdrier and tackier than nineties boy band fads, do little but consume the space and make some noise. While there are shades of perhaps eighteenth-century or maybe nineteenth-century Spain, a color palette is missing. The décor subscribes to no system.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting whips the opera up into its prerequisite frenzy, supporting traditional rhythms for the music and gradually building to climaxes.
That said, there could be more use of rubato. The distribution of dynamics across sections could be made more malleable in order to extract the music’s darker underbelly of lugubriously shimmering lower strings. At intervals one can hear crude French horns come loose unceremoniously from their group; the woodwind occasionally suffers from an impurity of tone; brass, for the most part, are muffled.
For first-timers at “La forza,” it is satisfactory. But for accustomed listeners, the notion that a lot more could be fabricated from the music – particularly with Pappano’s baton – remains irresistible.
With its incessant rhythmic clapping over music during dances and a great deal of overemphatic, persistently loud singing, the production overall comes stubbornly across as something mirroring a carnival. Its entrails show no trace of destiny at work. On the contrary, what we’re subjected to is just another Covent Garden spectacle that visually contains less artistry and fewer intricacies than a typical fiesta.