Semperoper Dresden 2017-18 Review – La Forza del Destino: Mark Wigglesworth’s Music Making Overcomes Uneven Leads in Unique ProductionBy Lois Silverstein
Dresden’s Semperoper’s production of “La Forza del Destino” showed how Verdi once again cut a big swathe in subject matter: the idea of fate, “schicksal,” “destino”, destiny, and its power over human emotions and actions. Prize-winning British conductor Mark Wigglesworth led the orchestra through the highs and lows of the tension in such a dialectic, never sacrificing the glories of Verdi’s music. Keith Warner’s direction, along with that of Katarina Kastening, amplified the surging dynamics, while Julia Muer’s stage design set it all in a production that rendered all human and transcendent. Sitting in the exquisitely restored Semperoper house, festooned with gilt chandeliers and sconces, olive green marble columns, multi-colored frescoes and alabaster statues, we felt ourselves become part of the larger perspective Verdi aimed to project: how we are all subject to the same elements on earth, and to those beyond us, whether we are led by our own free will or that of forces beyond us. We do best when we consider such a macrocosm rather than ignore it, and in the nearly four-hour performance, such contemplation became primary. Intensity was the call of the day, even though the production itself did not sustain it, despite the best efforts. Yes the music soared, but the individual performances remained uneven, the multiplicity of scenes interrupted the most passionate of stories, however melodramatic, and the driving force of the essential questions the opera raised remained unresolved.
Leaving the opera house without being at least gripped by this most passionate exploration left something to be desired.
American soprano Emily Magee sang the challenging role of Leonora, often with ease and high-note beauty. From the outset, her voice began to float above the painful situation she found herself in. Although Magee successfully sustained the piteous and heartfelt loss throughout the rest of the opera, her passion seemed expository rather than visceral. Even during the elaborate ritual of commitment to God she underwent with the cross being carved into her back, we have to imagine some of that pain rather than feel it. Even the glorious “Virgine degl’angeli” only partly rose to full sumptuous richness, though she sang with much lustrous beauty.
Alvaro, sung by lyrico-spinto tenor, Argentinian Marcelo Puente, illustrated some of the same instability, his lustrous high notes remaining uneven throughout, and did not always convince us of fully passionate commitment. Again he told us rather than dramatized or embodied it. This was contrary to a curious gesture he used, starting in Act one, when, kneeling on the floor while Leonora vacillated about eloping with him, he raised his arms in parallel, shoulder-width apart, as if he were sanctifying his commitment to her and their future life. It was striking, the space between his arms a sacred space, it seemed, something inviolate. Here Puente committed to the truth of his love. He repeated the gesture at key moments, underscoring commitment and connection to his beloved and to a more transcendent realm. Leonora also uses a similar gesture several times, also suggesting similar feelings. Like the leitmotif in the score, the so-called “fate motif” that recurs throughout the opera at key points, it illustrated the imperative of keeping the larger perspective in mind as more human issues absorb us. It became crucial, whatever dilution of passion there was, to sustain that larger vision and connect the narrative to it.
Dresden’s production illustrated some of this too in its use of multiple scenes that were more offshoots of the main narrative and ancillary to it – i.e., warfare among soldiers and what was the right way to be a soldier as well as the carousing of the townspeople living at that time. Preziosilla, played by Russian mezzo Elena Markova, also doubling as Leonora’s maid, Curra, and took over some of the job of “narrating” this perspective, while also introducing a quasi-occult layer, thus expanding the fate theme and issues of the unknown. Markova’s voice teetered at times as she pulled both the physical action – dancing and singing and cavorting among the crowd – her gestures sometimes felt cliche, but she warmed up as the opera unfolded and her voice steadied.
This was true for Melitone as well. Sung by Italian baritone, Pietro Spagnoli, Melitone spanned moments of comedy as well as high seriousness, in the exposition of fate and free will: the art of soldiering as well as maintaining hermetic silence and solitude.
Don Carlos, played by Russian baritone Alexey Markov, sang with rich dark power much of the time, conveying his vindictive and vengeful desires, although his dramatic embodiment seemed constrained and awkward. The same could be said for his facial expression, which seemed less consistent than the villainous intent on which he aimed his action.
The Most Notable Features
The most notable features of the production were the visual and the music. The stage was divided by diagonals, which served multiple purposes. Various segments of the action also took place in the quadrants, amplifying the simultaneity of idea and action. Then too, the central action occurred in the intersection of lines of what definitely became a cross, underscoring the religious content and symbols. This large cross tripled the two other crosses on stage, the small one, located downstage, and the large one found upstage. When lighting designer Wolfgang Gobbel sent a bright white light down the central “aisle,” it illuminated both the path in the narrative, as well as this symbolic thread, and enabled us to make the transition between levels of reality operating throughout the production. Further, the two silent figures, the white-veiled Angel, played by Marianne Heubaum, and the dark-figure Inka, interpreted by Eugen Boos, came and went in pantomime, accenting this layering of the unfolding tale in dumb show. So, the ordinary became again unpeeled, showing us the multiple layers of the theme as the story unfolded.
Wigglesworth capitalized on Verdi’s splendid music.The rich array of instrumentation complemented the various scenic elements, especially the haunting oboe and harp solos. Verdi’s palette of emotional coloration was once again more than moving. The two most famous arias, “O, tu, Che in sena angeli,” brought together the main human and transcendent realms, though in this the Christian theme is stressed; in the second, “Morir, tremenda casa,” the dark power deepened our awareness.
Still, we were struck with the performance, Dresden seemed all the better for a haunting depiction of human and larger more philosophical issues, whether rambling or unresolved. We left with the rich sonorities in our heads and hearts, glad to have spent some time on the range of Verdi’s palette of emotional coloration. Once again, we hold those rich sororities in us where the human and sublime rub shoulders.