Royal Opera House – Verdi’s La forza del destino – with Sondra Radvanovsky, Brian Jagde & Etienne Dupuis; directed by Christof Loy; conducted by Mark Elder

La forza del destino – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after Ángel Pérez de Saavedra’s Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, with a scene adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager and additional text by Antonio Ghislanzoni [1869 Milan version; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Donna Leonora – Sondra Radvanovsky
Don Alvaro – Brian Jagde
Don Carlo di Vargas – Etienne Dupuis
Padre Guardiano – Evgeny Stavinsky
Preziosilla – Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Fra Melitone – Rodion Pogossov
Mastro Trabuco – Carlo Bosi
Marquis of Calatrava – James Creswell
Curra – Chanáe Curtis
Alcalde – Thomas D. Hopkinson

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder

Christof Loy – Director
George Zlabinger – Associate director
Christian Schmidt – Designer
Olaf Winter – Lighting designer
Otto Pichler – Choreographer
Klevis Elmazaj – Revival choreographer
Klaus Bertisch – Dramaturg

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 19 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Three tableaux on stage during the Overture provide the backstory of the Calatrava family in this first revival of Christof Loy’s production of La forza del destino, at early stages in their history, and taken back to the early 20th century rather than the 18th. In a large dining room, the stern father leaves his three children to their own devices; first, an infant Leonora and one, unnamed brother stage a (mocking?) reenactment of the Pietà before that brother appears suddenly to die, leaving her alone in a later episode with Don Carlo, squabbling; later still, as adolescents and apparently reconciled, they hug as he takes his leave. Here it is more that fate has been tempted – or the family’s curse is generated from within a stultifying atmosphere of severe, loveless Catholic piety – rather than involuntarily imposed from without; like the family in Buddenbrooks, they are inherently destined for decline and extinction.

What is meaningfully imposed as a concept upon the opera is the sense of claustrophobia, given that the whole narrative effectively plays out within the same closed-in setting, bare and characterless as is typical of Loy (last seen in England in his Luisa Miller for Glyndebourne in 2021). It opens up a little to reveal a rocky landscape for Act Three, ordinarily set away from Spain in Italy, for the battle of Velletri, but such specific details are essentially irrelevant here. The point is that the action is entirely focused on one particular domestic space, which makes it grimly ironic to have the gypsy revels in Act Two occur over the same place in which the Marquis has just been shot. But it intensifies the notion of ‘the force of destiny’ by underlining the fact that fate inextricably links the three central characters and prevents them from escaping. Given the hypocritical sanctimonious upbringing of the Calatravas, there is also a sense that organised religion here is an accomplice in that working out of destiny, not a solace or temporary respite, seeing that the monastery is visually and structurally the same place as the Calatrava home. The assembly of monks there, when Leonora seeks refuge there, are rather menacing and unwelcoming (not just Melitone); and the Father Superior, Padre Guardiano, also seems to loiter and guard the door so as to ensure that Leonora meets her fate rather than avoid it, despite Evgeny Stavinsky’s warm, consoling singing in the part (he actually allows Leonora out through the door at the end, facilitating the encounter with her vengeful brother beyond, who then stabs her). 

References to various iconic images from Italian cinema briefly and periodically open up a more expansive dimension on the setting’s confinement, but real film projections showing Leonora’s shocked reaction at the point of her father’s death keep the drama looped back into its own suffocating circularity and claustrophobia: not only does it accompany that scene itself in Act One, it recurs like a psychological trauma when Leonora first encounters Padre Guardiano as she thinks she has found a new protecting father figure, and again towards the end when her brother appears for the final showdown.

In this tautly plotted production, the one misjudgement is to have retained the final scene of Act There where the soldiers in Italy are spurred on by Preziosilla. That was added by Verdi to the original score later, and so could justifiably be cut. Like the interpolations of ballet in 19th century French opera, it rather destroys the tension and thrust of an already long drama that Loy has otherwise skilfully wrought up to this point – all the more so as it compounds the scene’s sardonic comedy (which, admittedly, can potentially provide useful relief and contrast) with facile spectacle by introducing a troupe of dancers like a fun fair or circus entertainment (perhaps another cinematic allusion, as it is as though the low life of a Fellini film have stepped in). It makes of the pedlar Trabuco a vulgar caricature with Carlo Bosi’s niggardly, nasal delivery; Rodion Pogossov’s more measured Melitone threatens to become the same. The whole scene is unnecessary, at least in this realisation, as the production and singers already emphasise the little points of irony and dark humour of the libretto elsewhere.

Fortunately, a generally excellent cast ably keep the show on the road. Sondra Radvanovsky is a steely Leonora, sometimes brittle with a somewhat shrill reediness in the middle to low registers, at least when from the chest. But there’s no doubt that she works up to a tremendous interpretation overall in tandem with her electric stage presence as the performance progresses, expressing Leonora’s strength and determination. The chilling messa di voce with which she announces her final aria, towards the end of Act Four, sustains an acute and penetrating arc that sums up in a single note the whole performance, and pre-empts the breathtaking sweep of that last desperate soliloquy, effortlessly filling the auditorium. Her brief monologue in Act Two, in tender duet with a clarinet just as she is about to meet Padre Guardiano for the first time, also shows what Radvanovsky achieves even in those lower registers at a quieter, intimate volume when not so pressed.

Brian Jagde is equally impressive as Leonora’s lover Alvaro, at first relatively inconspicuous so as not to upstage her it seems, but really flourishing with ardent delivery in Act Three which he dominates musically and dramatically. Etienne Dupuis (replacing Igor Golovatenko) complements him well as Carlo – vocally not dissimilar, though a touch darker and rawer, to meld well in the music in his charged collaboration and then altercations with Alvaro. James Creswell is an appropriately craggy, stern Marquis, though Vasilisa Berzhanskaya is perhaps a touch too light and clean of voice as Preziosilla – even if, as this modernised production doesn’t explicitly retain her as a gypsy, it matters less that she omits a more typically smouldering tone. 

Sir Mark Edler leads a compelling account of the score from the pit – the Royal Opera House Orchestra sound like a totally different ensemble from that in Das Rheingold just a week ago. Right from the ringing trumpet notes at the beginning, Elder maintains a firm grip, without driving it too hard or fast. Somehow when the urgent theme from the opening of the Overture reappears subsequently, it sounds subtly but tellingly different each time, impelling the opera towards its fateful end. But even in passages of contrasting delicate scoring by Verdi – sensitively caught here – he still manages to draw out the lurking, stirring shades of darker sonorities lying underneath in the lower instruments. Verdi referred to the specific tinta that he sought to capture in each of his operas; here Elder conjures a whole array of dusky, gloomy colours. If La forza is an opera that can frustrate on account of its longueurs, Elder and this cast will make you think again.

Further performances to 9 October

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