Wiener Staatsoper – La forza del destino

La forza del destino – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave [sung in Italian]

Marchese di Calatrava – Stefan Kocán
Leonora – Micaela Carosi
Don Carlo – Alberto Gazale
Alvaro – Fabio Armiliato
Padre Guardiano – Stefan Kocán
Fra Melitone – Sorin Coliban
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva
Mastro Trabuco – Wolfram Igor Derntl
Alcalde – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Surgeon – Zoltán Nagy
Curra – Donna Ellen

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Marco Armiliato

David Pountney – Director
Richard Hudson – Designs
Beate Vollack – Choreography
Fabrice Kebour – Lighting
fettFilm – Video

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 19 June, 2010
Venue: Wiener Opernhaus, Vienna

The Vienna State Opera here presented “La forza del destino” in Ioan Holender’s last season as General Director (to be replaced by Dominique Meyer next season) in David Poutney’s 2008 production – and there resided the vast majority of the evening’s problems. Pountney, having given English National Opera the benefits of his singular approach to opera direction, essentially left the UK to distribute his largesse to a wider audience on the continent. For those expecting the broad sweep of ‘Forza’ to be delivered with clarity and for what is a sprawling narrative to be deftly tightened, his production is a cruel disappointment.

Pountney has gone for a confusing mix of the minimalist (a huge, turning and moving, white ‘L’ on which much of the action takes place), the modish (a scrim is regularly lowered onto which images of battlefields or a firing pistol are projected ) and the messy (crowd scenes are directed with the subtlety of the sledgehammer). Pountney does not seem to have a ‘big idea’, but several small ideas, which are all placed on the stage and loosely sewn together, with some of the poorest scene changes I have witnessed on a professional stage. One example will suffice: while Leonora delivers the final lines of her Act Two aria ‘Madre, pietosa Vergine’, extras, in full view of the audience, clamber onto the big L with props for her next scene with Padre Guardiano, marching on and off with the silent tread of a battalion of infantry. Stage essentials are ignored – when Padre Guardiano indicates the bell that Leonora should ring in extremis, there is no bell; when Leonora bemoans the food that keeps her alive in her hermitage, there is no food.

Pountney, no doubt in order to cock a snook at Vienna’s bourgeoisie who have paid up to 168 Euros to see his production, crowns his achievement with two scenes of gratuitous offence and vulgarity – Preziosilla is kitted up as Dolly Parton and delivers her Act Two aria to the accompaniment of the chorus and dancers dressed as cowboys and girls who brandish books decorated with crosses and executing worse choreography and movement than you would see at at a holiday camp. I can only hope the credited choreographer was not paid for her meagre efforts. The Act Three post-battle celebrations see the war-wounded (including a man in a nappy) in an orgy with their nurses.

Only two scenes worked: first was Alvaro’s ‘deathbed’ interaction with Don Carlo in Act Three, when attention was focussed solely on them by means of careful lighting; and in the final scene, when all the superfluities were swept away and the minimalism of the ‘L’ came into its own.

Pountney seems not be have much interest in the main singers, who are pretty much left to their own devices, which is fine if they can act (Carosi) and less so if they can’t (Armiliato and Kocán). Still, all can be forgiven if the music is well served, and, firstly, all praise to Marco Armiliato and the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Unsurprisingly, its tone was superb (nowhere better than in the Act Three ‘Prelude’), and Armiliato succeeded in bringing out the myriad of colours in the score, displaying a fine rapport with the singers and fully cognisant of the ebb and flow of the music, and the rubato so important in Verdi’s compositions.

Much is said of the dearth of singers capable of singing Verdi’s more ‘muscular’ operas, and if this was the finest cast even Vienna could muster, there is cause for concern indeed. Superb, and by far and away the closest to the ideal was Micaela Carosi’s impassioned and tireless Leonora, who, after a short warm-up period in which her vibrato was a little too insistent, produced ample, generous tone all the way to the very top; her Act Four aria ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ was, rightly, a crowning moment. Her top notes rang true and she brought much colour to her voice to indicate the conflicting emotions which define Leonora as a character.

Fabio Armiliato was unlucky to catch a crab in his last scenes, audibly tired after the considerable exertions of Act Three and his well-delivered ‘O tu che in seno degli angeli’. However, despite his baritonal timbre, his is a bumpy delivery with top notes either generous or pinched, and he has an unfortunate habit of ‘hefting’ up to notes above the stave. I suspect strongly that he has moved into tenore robust territory because of the vacuum which exists, but that his is not such a voice, hence clear fatigue at the end of this demanding work. He is not a stage ‘natural’ either and would have benefitted from greater direction not to make him seem so wooden.

Alberto Gazale, similarly, is not a ‘natural’ Verdi baritone – he makes enough sound all right and was clearly determined to squeeze everything out of his big aria in Act Three ‘Urna fatale’ and its cabaletta, but he was always pushing his voice at the expense of legato and structure. Again, the production did not help him – he carries his father’s sword around in what looks like an old blanket and is forever unwrapping and re-wrapping it.

Another of Pountney’s ideas is to use the same singer for Leonora’s father, whom Alvaro accidentally kills, and Padre Guardiano with the intention of the latter’s pacifying utterances at the very end of the opera representing the former’s ultimate forgiveness. It passes for very little, and Stefan Kocán made even less of it, intent as he was in singing smoothly and loudly at all times. In this production he has the stage presence of a shop dummy and displayed little to no understanding of what he was singing about, so one cared very little for him.

Initially I pitied Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, given that she was made to look utterly ridiculous by the production (Pountney had no idea whatsoever what to do with her character, so simply made fun of every scene in which she appeared). Not only was she dressed as Dolly Parton but she also executed back-bends and the splits like any self-respecting pole-dancer. Lamentable. I felt less sorry for Krasteva to see she had sung the role in this production when new in 2008, so she should really know better. Hers is a generic Russian mezzo sound, loud and forceful with precious little communication of the words. The Chorus was ill-served by the production, placing its members more often than not at the sides and compromising the fullness of sound.

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