La forza del destino – Review – Showcase Cinema de Lux, Leeds (Satellite Screening)
By Eve Luddington, April 2019
These days, the best seats for Royal Opera productions aren’t necessarily in Covent Garden itself. Thanks to the wonders of live-streaming, I saw one of Verdi’s most praised operas performed by a starry cast, in Showcase Cinema De Lux, Leeds, a stone’s throw from Ikea in Batley.
Written in 1861 but originally set in the mid 18th century, La forza del destino is usually translated as ‘The Force of Destiny’. From the very first notes of the overture, Verdi sets up its themes – of fate, pursuit and piety.
The storyline stretches over many years. It revolves around Leonora, from a wealthy well-connected Seville family, and her lover, Don Alvaro. He, the son of a Spanish grandee and an Inca princess, will never match the criteria set by the racist and Catholic Marquis of Calatrava for his daughter’s suitor.
“Tortured by guilt and loss”
The action begins as Leonora, a pious Catholic, struggles to choose between her family and her lover. Her father enters just after she’s made her decision and is about to elope. In the ensuing argument, he’s accidentally shot and killed by Don Alvaro. With his dying breath, the Marquis curses his daughter. That one event and the curse haunt the couple for the rest of their lives. Their feelings about it and their pious beliefs condition everything they do from then on.
As the couple flee, Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo, swears revenge on the couple for besmirching the Calatrava’s name. The couple are separated early on. She believes Don Alvaro has returned to South America and retreats to a monastery where she is offered sanctuary as a hermit. Don Alvaro, believing Leonora dead, joins the Spanish army. When the war is over, he enters the same monastery as a monk, completely unaware that Leonora is still alive. Dwelling on the memory of the lover believed lost, both are tortured by guilt and loss, desperate for God’s redemption.
“Singing was stupendous”
In this production, director, Christof Loy, and designer, Christian Schmidt, never let the audience forget the importance of the initial, accidental murder and the curse. A vast video projection of that moment is repeated when it drives the characters’ immediate thoughts and action. The basic structure of the dining room in which it takes place remains on stage throughout, framing all the other scenes. That moment sets in motion ‘the force of destiny’. Verdi personifies destiny or fate as Preziosilla, a fortune-teller. Loy and Schmidt make her a dominant figure in this production, further emphasising the theme.
Verdi’s music for this opera is extraordinary in its emotive range and power. Pappano, the conductor for this performance, reckons that you need the best in the world to sing it. I think he may have found them. The singing was stupendous all-round. Solo voices balanced beautifully with one another, with the chorus and with the orchestra. I’m no opera buff but I believe, along with the experts, that Pappano is a musical genius. In this production, particularly, he brings the beating heart of the music to life and the experience he creates is intoxicating.
“Penetrates the skin”
Anna Netrebko plays Leonora. Her voice is breathtaking, swooping and soaring with the emotion of the music, so rich and strong it penetrates the skin. As she arrives at the monastery, her plea to God, ‘Do not abandon me, Have pity on me, O Lord,’ hauntingly backed by a distant chorus of monks, gave me goose-pimples. For me, Netrebko didn’t present a character as such; she ‘was’ the music and its emotion, delicacy transformed in a couple of notes to weighty passion.
The magnificent tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, is wildly attractive as the instinctive, fated Don Alvaro, who changes his name to protect himself when he joins the army. Kaufmann gives a potent, empathic interpretation of a man tortured by a life devoid of meaning now his lover is apparently dead, yet heroic in his living of it as a soldier.
Don Carlos has, like Alvaro, changed his name and joined the Spanish army but his enemies are really the murderer of his father and the sister who stained the family honour. Ludovic Tezier is dynamic and chilling as an obsessive. He presents a complex character who occasionally accesses his better nature but is overwhelmingly driven by vengeance.
“Style and strength”
The outstanding dramatic moments of this production come in the exchanges between Leonora’s lover and her brother. In Act III, the men swear blood-brotherhood after Don Alvaro saves Don Carlos’ life in battle. Within minutes, Don Carlos discovers the true identity of his saviour and swears to kill him. Tezier’s portrayal gives reality to a melodramatic scene – and insight into the psychology of such a fanatic. The way Kaufmann and Tezier, and their voices, work together, is thrilling.
As the fortune-teller Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni shines with the rest of the starry cast, dancing with as much style and strength as she sings. She’s a sexy rabble-rouser in crimson trouser-suit and magenta hair, inciting the men to war even as she predicts their futures. Later, she feeds the soldiers’ lusts, then sits with the war-damaged as they receive alms. Simeoni is terrifically dominant and aloof, just what I’d expect of Destiny’s personification.
The whole production is richly enhanced by the Royal Opera chorus. Their singing is always wonderful but, often, I’ve found their characterisation dull and lacking individuality. In La forza del destino, I had no such qualms.
It was a very long evening, at nearly 4 hours including intervals, but I didn’t regret one minute of it.
The Royal Opera has a world-class production here and, actually, so it should:- According to the Guardian newspaper (April 2018), Arts Council England gives 62% of its entire music budget to opera, and £24 million of that goes annually to the Royal Opera alone. Even with such a massive subsidy, good seats are usually prohibitively expensive. I couldn’t find how much subsidy Opera North in Leeds received in 2018 (£10 million in 2016) but, according to the Guardian again (October 2018), its capital grant from the Arts Council for refurbishment is £500,000.
I’m glad to have seen this wonderful production, live-streamed, in Batley!
images: Monika Rittershaus