Welsh National Opera, ever-adventurous, here demonstrates that even Verdi’s more-problematic works have considerable appeal in this striking new staging by David Pountney. The ‘fate’ motif is heard at the start of the Overture and is repeated often, accentuated by the presence of a masked, cloaked figure with a rod of destiny controlling or altering the lives of various characters. That this character also transforms into the maid Curra, here an astonishingly baleful presence, and also the enigmatic Preziosilla is a clever stroke, and the destinies of the protagonists are altered irrevocably.
The version chosen is the 1869 revision, although some of the sequence of the third Act is adjusted – making it more episodic but to remarkably cogent effect. Thus Don Alvaro and Don Carlo do not start their hostilities the moment the former has leapt up from his hospital bed following successful removal of a bullet, but some of the crowd scenes interpolated by Piave and Verdi from Schiller are played earlier in the sequence. As an important element, the WNO Chorus was on particularly fine fettle.
The setting is generally abstract although projected images of a wheel of fate, religious crosses and revolvers are present. Verdi’s operas frequently contain religious orders of sorts that are not always depicted in the most positive light, and this production’s imagery and particularly Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costuming for the monks with their blood-spattered vestments accentuate this.
Ultimately though Force of Destiny rests on the principal roles. Leonora takes pride of place as her tragedy essentially frames the opera. She’s a troubled unhappy soul. Mary Elizabeth Williams initially made the character more-active than is often the case, but as her world collapses brought despair to her dramatic portrayal. Her well-schooled voice has a resonant lower register and she can float some exquisite high soft notes, if a tad strident. She was at her most-assured in the last Act and her contribution to the final trio was outstanding.
Don Alvaro is the pivotal character. He’s a hot-headed, if honourable, outcast Inca prince, in disguise from the start. The role is very demanding and many tenors avoid it. Gwyn Hughes Jones produces a pleasing stream of heroic sound, contrasting with some honeyed singing at the character’s more reflective moments. Opposite him is Luis Cansino, a great voice with much drama and colouring for one of Verdi’s most ruthless characters but Cansino’s stage demeanour hardly evinced Don Carlo’s implacable desire for revenge! Miklós Sebestyén’s is an arrogant Marquis of Calatrava, and then a benign Padre Guardiano, and Justina Gringyte’s Preziosilla and Curra are both mettlesome characters and her fruity and flexible voice is as striking as ever. Donald Maxwell contributes another great cameo; his irascible and sour Fra Melitone is less comedic than perhaps Verdi intended, and maybe the re-ordering of Act Three means he is even less important to the plot than usual. Small roles are well-taken, Wyn Pencarreg making more of Alcade than one would have thought possible!
The WNO Orchestra, under Carlo Rizzi, is on top form, relishing the music and playing with real verve.