Verdi, La forza del destino, Bayerische Staatsoper, 5 January 2014. Production directed by Martin Kusej, set designer Martin Zehetgruber, costumes Heidi Hackl, lights Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Ascher Fisch with Anja Harteros (Leonora), Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro), Ludovic Tézier (Carlo), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla), Vitalij Kowaljow (Marchese di Calatrava/Padre Guardiano), Renato Girolami (Melitone)Let me start off by saying that my review of the production is a bit limited, because my view of the stage was a bit limited. I was not too badly put out by this, because I managed to snag a ticket to a ridiculously sold out production only two weeks ahead of time and it cost all of 15 Euros. But I recognize that it is not ideal for a review. (I didn’t watch the webstream.)
I love Forza; I think it’s a fascinating and ridiculously underrated piece that presents enormous musical and dramatic interest and possibilities. (I’ve written about it before.) The, er, “plot” is convoluted and sometimes seems to entirely disappear, as do major characters for acts at a time; the tone swings wildly between the most solemn late Verdi drama and La fille du régiment. It’s the biggest argument against Verdi as a dramatist who operates solely in simple and literal terms. He obviously has more abstract fish to fry here, and a staging that doesn’t reflect this complexity... well, maybe that’s why this opera’s reputation is so bad.
Act 2 seems to be constructed of remanants of this first act in a dream-like way--Leonora’s maid Curra becomes Preziosilla, Carlo grows up (and eventually loses the dorky green sweater), the Marchese becomes the Padre Guardiano, and one of the mysterious dinner guests turns out to be Melitone. Leonora still can’t escape, it seems, and finally submits to the Church (as represented by her dead father, the Marchese/Padre Guardiano) in a baptismal dunking apparently lifted from an American church.
The Act 2 inn set evokes a 9/11 disaster photo, prefiguring the American tone of Act 3, which leaves Leonora for an Iraq-like war. This act begins with a startling tableau of images familiar from the US in Iraq. It’s an apt setting for a chaotic conflict that depends on personal trust. (For an American for whom such things remain open issues, the torture stuff felt underexamined and gratuitous--I don’t think I’m ready to see anything about this as a symbol yet. But it was gone fairly quickly.) The staging of the Alvaro and Carlo scenes, however, is strong and intense (what I saw of it).
The music of the following crowd scenes turns comic but the production remains grim, an orgy that seems ordered out of a Regietheater catalog. This made the production seem a bit deaf to the score's change of tone, and besides I never got any good sense as to who these people represent or what they're doing here. While their random appearance and manic energy—were the conductor to become a little more energetic, that is—could seemingly be mined for something grotesque and extreme, here it’s a bit generic and deflated. Even a striking scene of rows of dead bodies in the Rataplan is somehow less horrifying than it should be. (Honestly, after an Abu Gharib tableau, I’m not sure if you have anywhere to go.) The production’s low point comes in the opening of Act 4, which seems to have slipped Kusej’s mind entirely. (Act 3 is rearranged, with the Alvaro-Carlo duet moved after the Rataplan.)
While this production was interesting, the performance’s biggest reward was the singing, more glamorous, charismatic, and committed than you usually hear in this rep. If only the cast hadn’t been consistently counteracted by Asher Fisch’s uninspired conducting. While he and the orchestra got off to a strong prelude, elsewhere he proved too laid-back for his own good, failing to build to climaxes and lacking in energy. This particularly dogged the choral scenes, which tended towards the limp. The chorus, though, was excellent.
Anja Harteros deservedly received the largest ovation for her Leonora. The role suits both her big, dark, slightly grainy soprano and her introverted temperament: she always seems conscious and in control of everything she does, and Leonora here is someone who has never been able to express herself freely. While she doesn’t have the vocal warmth or round sound of a more Italinate soprano, she sounds absolutely like herself and is wonderfully musical. While she doesn’t always have the greatest high notes, the ending of her “Pace, pace” was terrific, and she doesn’t shy away from chest voice, either.
No one would accuse Jonas Kaufmann of being Italian either, but his muscular, forceful tenor and surprisingly bright upper range is perfect for Alvaro’s tortured character. He was also endlessly energetic compared to the more withdrawn Harteros (as well as far greasier-looking compared to her elegance). “Tu, che in seno agli angeli” featured some terrific high soft singing. As Carlo, though, Ludovic Tézier was somewhat overparted and sometimes resorted to barking, as well as struggling with the fioriture in “Urna fatale.” He did his best singing in the duets with Kaufmann, where they blended well.
It’s a shame there isn’t going to be a DVD of this. I’m very glad I got to see it in person.
Photos (copyright Bayerische Staatsoper):