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La forza del destino, Royal Opera review - generous voices, dramatic voids | reviews, news & interviews

La forza del destino, Royal Opera review - generous voices, dramatic voids

La forza del destino, Royal Opera review - generous voices, dramatic voids

Generalised star turns from Kaufmann and Netrebko defuse Pappano's musical drama

Jonas Kaufmann's Alvaro and Anna Netrebko's Leonora at the end of their tethersAll images by Bill Cooper

When "Maestro" Riccardo Muti left the Royal Opera's previous production of Verdi's fate-laden epic, disgusted by minor changes to fit the scenery on the Covent Garden stage, no-one was sorry when Antonio Pappano, the true master of the house then only two years into his glorious reign, took over.

He's now unsurpassable in the pace and colouring of the great Verdi and Puccini scores. Signs from his previous collaborations with once radical director Christof Loy and the glorious cast assembled were that this time round Forza would be a total triumph. In the end, several mountains gave birth to a mouse.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but the baseline in any production of this difficult, harsh but musically infinitely rich drama is that we should be moved to pity and terror by the lacerating attempts of two star-crossed lovers as they wander Spain and Italy to escape the vengefulness of the noble girl's brother, who wants their blood for the accidental death of their father. It's maddening, when Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann do so much vocally that is absolutely right, sometimes ideal, for the lirico spinto thrust of Verdi's writing for them, that they simply don't convey a hero and heroine in extremis. The singing of both is powerful, with plenty of quiet delivery as well as the artistry of the bel canto legacy; but in Netrebko's case the meaning is generalised, and Kaufmann has the thrill but not the Italianate sweetness of sorrow often needed for the demanding role of Alvaro. Loy has not been able to get them to jettison the stock hand gestures in favour of movements dictated by what they're singing about. Ludovic Tezier and Jonas Kaufmann in Royal Opera ForzaConsequently we never really get the power of the music to wound and torment, despite the characteristic intense high profile Pappano gets from the Royal Opera Orchestra in supporting lines: a bass phrase louring up to meet Kaufmann in his Act III aria, beautifully initiated by the clarinet who's his sorrowing companion in a scene where the military brass and offstage choruses, the nagging mid-range figures which drive the more heated parts of the big duets between Alvaro and the brother, Carlo (Ludovic Tézier, the testosterone-driven Verdi baritone to the life, but too loud too much of the time; pictured above with Kaufmann in Act II). The Overture is magnificent, and Loy looks set to deliver convincingly in two curtain-rises on two younger Leonoras acting out her religious fantasies in a bare room - the set could be borrowed from the same director's Tristan und Isolde, though hopefully the sight-lines are better from certain places in the house - before we get to the grown-up version.

Yet despite the symmetrical image of the grey-haired hermit re-enacting her Pietà complex when finally reunited, but too late, with her Alvaro towards the end of the opera, the vision is not consistent. Loy seems to be telling us that for Leonora, there's no place but home, plus a monastery entrance and a crucifix replacing one of the walls. The panoramic dimension of the drama is lost; more worryingly, despite participants coming on at the end of each scene to set up the next, the curtain descends and we wait for some minutes for the resumption of the drama. How thrillingly Mark Wigglesworth at ENO made the case for driving on the music with no pause for applause, the open stage of Calixto Bieito's production allowing for a more epic sense of continuity.

Scene from Royal Opera ForzaWigglesworth started out by favouring Verdi's first version, with its shorter orchestral introduction, though Bieito rejected the abrupt ending where Alvaro joins the other corpses by leaping into the void. The trio Verdi composed as substitute in response to Catholic indignation at the suicide is an absolute beauty, and it ended the Royal Opera evening with a contained emotion not much in display elsewhere; here the sonorous combination of Netrebko, Kaufmann and Ferruccio Furlanetto as the Padre Guardiano (another loud one) and the pianissimo strings at the end justified Pappano's choice.

ENO's decision to place the second company scene in between the two confrontations between Alvaro and Carlo rather than as a divertissement finale made much more sense too. Loy's camp extravaganza (camp in more ways than one) may have wowed an audience ready to laugh at every turn of the melodrama - that in itself proves that the tension wasn't at the right pitch - but it had little connection with the hurly-burly of war. Programme images suggest the director was going for an Italian neo-realist film look, with a dash of more extravagant later Fellini, but the go-go boys, their choreography familiar from Otto Pichler's much more appropriate work in Barrie Kosky's stagings of The Nose and Carmen, don't fit, and some of the dancy-dancy movements for the chorus both here and in the earlier variety-act at the Hornochuelos inn are more worthy of an amateur opera company. A pity, because they sing superbly throughout.

The hard-to-motivate role of gypsy Preziosilla doesn't really work, either; she moves from trouser-suited glam to brothel-madam enigma in "consoling" Alvaro in Italy, and defuses the tension of his spat with Carlo by coming on in a green belly-dancer's costume. Finally she's hanging around, a wreck, at the monastery. Veronica Simeoni (pictured above with Netrebko and the Royal Opera Chorus) has presence - though it's not quite clear to what end - but the role needs a more opulent mezzo (maybe it will get that in the second cast's Aigul Akhmetshina later in the run). It was a surprise to see the ever-sympathetic Roberta Alexander as an anxious maid in the first scene, and there was promise from Michael Mofidian's Hornochuelos Alcade, hinting at a duel of the baritones with Tezier in Act II Scene 1. Scene from Royal Opera ForzaAlessandro Corbelli's character-study of Brother Melitone (pictured above to the left of Netrebko) was, as ever, superbly observed, and he's still in fine voice. But we missed him when the first monastery scene yielded to the crucial duet between Leonora and the Father Superior. Looking a bit too chic in her menswear, Leonora would never reappear before the head of the monastery in her lingerie, or show her glossy hair to the assembled monks. Loy attempted a bit of the misogyny which Bieito had brought to the fore in the most harrowing scene of his hit-and-miss ENO production with the much more nuanced Tamara Wilson, but didn't follow through. Much better that vivid curate's egg, surely, than this director seeming to dither on what seemed to be a tight leash. But then maybe you can't achieve true music-theatre with the international set, especially if one of the principals isn't there for the final rehearsal. The lovers of star opera weren't disappointed, but Pappano deserved so much more, dramatically speaking, from his singers. Perhaps the best deal will be the BBC Radio broadcast on 25 May.

Netrebko and Kaufmann do so much that is right vocally, but they simply don't convey characters in extremis


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I think you are being far too "anti-star" in your remarks, which is a shame. I understand and indeed partly agree with some of the points. But it was not case of big stars ignoring everyone else and grandstanding for their own glory. It was one of those (rare enough) nights of opera when you walked away going "wow, that was a fantastic evening". It was memorable. The playing, the chorus, the principals were all just really wonderful. It is a shame to carp. Enjoy. Such terrific opera evenings are not common place.

I want to go away thinking not JUST 'that was fantastic singing' but 'that's a fantastic opera, and I'm shaken to the core'. Which is how I felt, despite Bieito's production misses at times, about the ENO performance and especially Tamara Wilson. There is simply no comparison between her living the character and Netrebko's full-toned charisma. This goes deeper, I hope, than carping. Cried my eyes out in the Padre Guardiano-Leonora scene at the Coli. Nothing other than excitement here.

Why does Guardian review appear so late after premiere? Forza is not a flawd opera,, the merry making scees are a reflection of the Spaish feria atmosphere. The tenor Kaufmann lacks something inn his rendering of Alvaro.

Not sure you've posted in the right place. The Arts Desk was up with the lark to cover this. And I agree with you, it's not flawed, and the crowd scenes if well staged widen the panorama of life in a time of war. They were done pantomimically here. I agree that Kaufmann lacked something dramatically - compared to their ENO counterparts, all three principals gave only generalised dramatic performances, great voices notwithstanding.

Thank you, David, for your intelligent review of this. I found this Forza, seeing it in a cinema in Houston, where opera is usually underwhelming, kind of dull, plodding, and underwhelming. You're spot on in how glib you have found Jonas Kaufmann and self-serving in a way too. What is wrong with singing more consistently with some nuance, variety in dynamics and less placing back all the time? Netrebko offered some line, some dramatic intensity, but even for several critical moments in this, sour intonation, even enough to make one wince in 'La Vergine' at the end of Act Two and for opening stanza of her fourth act aria, that was overall too verismo by half as though it needed the verismo touch to give it life. As for Loy's staging - and I love modern stagings, even aggressive ones if/when they have something to say and still show some respect for the composer's score. Even though the Pountney with Zubin Mehta (a producer who knows better I know from how good his Macbeth, Jenufa, and Turandot are) is worse, the new Christof Loy I find really lacking in too many ways as well. I am reminded here of a Hedda Gabler (Ivo van Hove production) I watched at the same theater, which only revealed how much more progressive, forward looking Ibsen's ideas are than what Ivo van Hove (i.e. the over melodramatic ending to his production) layered on top of them. Should you not have any ideas, ideas that work, let the modernism that Forza conveys a little better speak for itself. I'm fine with several women of ill repute loitering the stage during the clarinet solo to begin Act Three, but then to have Alvaro exit stage right with the Preziosilla for a fix then drop her money on the floor, with the music being poignant reminiscence of Leonora and happier times before with her, what does this accomplish? The last time Forza showed downtown in Houston was in 1973 and I remember how rivted i was by how beautifully Richard Pickar played the opening clarinet solo. i was twelve years old, taking it all in and this was the first opera ticket I had ever purchased. Timothy Opren of the RoH orchestra should have had somebody to whom to effectively complain, as he is also very fine. All the back story during the sinfonia and excess along these lines to follow crowded out emotional space for us to take in the narrative quality of what Leonora sings to Guardiano in Act Two is already a bit much. We then however have the Leonora writhing around on a table, then dressed down in the company of a bunch of men to her slip or nightie, and then manically running about the monks then having to be subdued to the stage floor by them during the 'maledizione' chorus before "La Vergine agli angeli' The iciing on the cake was Netrebko's sour intonaton and shaky ability to sustain the line to it thereby for 'La Vergine.' The humanity of Forza is also missing in this production. Preziosilla a fag-hag, amidst excessive hip-cavorting around? Most of us have lived long enough to be able to tell the difference between radical and 'radical chic', have we not? The sadistic profile of Melitone at the start of Act Four does not work either, though Corbelli, though unwittingly undercutting the production a bit, more than made up for it by his expert singing and comic acting. Showing Preiziosilla (an initially good, but then vocally slightly overwhelmed Veronica Simeoni) among the famihsed homeless, just what pitch exactly is this supposed to make? So much confining of the action, with the then inexplicable two to three minute breaks between scenes, to a single unit set, just simply felt claustrophobic. All the theem of displacement, also of emotional dislocation as portrayed in Verdi's Forza, what idea is it exactly by which it got replaced, if any at all? The ugly bare wall forming an artificial and too close rear t the stage for the final scene of the opera, with what dynamic contrasts are marked in Verdi's score, presented an acoustical nightmare, especially for the transitional passage where Alvaro and Leonora discover they are metting each other again, then for Leonora to be slain by Carlo. Ferruccio Furlanetto I unexpectedly found, though at his age still a little dry vocally, to be very fine, by putting most bawling and fletcherizing of the text aside to sing the whole part quite smoothly and conveying a fine sense of gravitas and humility thereby as kind of antidote to production. Ludovic Tezier made a fine Carlo, but I find a little soft-grained in demeanor and tone for some stretches of the part for the potential meance of Carlo to register in full. Fine star turns from both Roberta Alxander and Robert Lloyd. Antonio Pappano shows some expertise in conducting Verdi, but something fell a little flat for me. Combining kind of a lumpy, stodgy gait for the first scene duet with Kaufmann''s kind of placed back (and also at times back-phrased) phoning it in provided a little too good preview of problems that continued to emerge. Mehta's lumpy, stodgy command of Forza in Vienna just reveals that the apple indeed does not fall far from the tree. Good to hear the Scouts' chorus, and not messed with much. The duet between Furlanetto and Corbelli was a highlight of a very spotty evening indeed. I found Loy clunky in addition to being a little show-off all evening in how to move or not to move the chorus around At the end of a long evening, with Royal Opera insipidly mimicking the Met with how long they can make the intervals, some of the terror and pity, also the humanity of Forza went absent without leave. Interview in German of the set designer, rationalizing for us then having to give us Leonora and her siblings' back stories of their childhood, had me exclaim a bit out loud 'what I could give for a large sock full of horse manure! (in other words to swing in the general direction of somebody or other). I will abstain from quoting the stage whisper i came up with during the introduction to Act Three.

Thanks, too, for your intelligent reponse. I apologise if the public facility doesn't allow breaking up into paragraphs but I do recommend others to stick with it. My feelings on regietheater - not a negative term in my books - are that it can come up with fascinating alternatives, but they have to 'hear' the music and give it visual life in whatever way they please to succeed. Your citing of Alvaro's memories and his going off with Preziosilla is one such example of where that doesn't happen. Odd, because I usually find Loy very sensitive to such things. But in any case such a director can't hope to do too much with 'international' singers. I believe Richard Jones has all but given up on them after a bad experience in Munich, albeit at the highest level.

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