Friday 13 November 2015

A Forza for our times - Calixto Bieito's production of La Forza del Destino at the London Coliseum

The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
Verdi The Force of Destiny (La Forza del Destino
Tamara Wilson, Gwyn Hughes-Jones, Anthony Michaels-Moore, James Creswell, Andrew Shore, Rinat Shaham, dir: Calixto Bieito, cond: Mark Wigglesworth
English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Nov 9 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Compelling performances with Spanish Civil War backdrop

The Force of Destiny is Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s fifth new production for English National Opera (seen 9 November 2015), with a cast including Tamara Wilson (Leonora), Gwyn Hughes-Jones (Alvaro), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Carlo), James Creswell (Guardiano), Andrew Shore (Melitone), Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla), conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, in a translation by Jeremy Sams.

It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera New York and the Canadian Opera Company, and one couldn’t help wondering how a director known for his stark, uncompromising and violent work would produce something palatable for Met audiences. In London, Verdi’s 'cursed' opera was eagerly anticipated after the 2004 ROH production in which great Verdi singing salvaged the high-profile last-minute walkouts and the truly awful set.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones, Anthony Michaels Moore - The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
Gwyn Hughes-Jones, Anthony Michaels Moore - photo Robert Workman
We didn’t have much time to speculate on this once in the auditorium at the Coliseum. The show began with stunning abruptness: without warning the audience chatter was interrupted by the three famous chords blasting out in the dark, as Mark Wigglesworth chose the earlier, short prelude over the long overture to establish the relentless tone from the start.

Bieito set this Forza in the Spanish Civil War, which has provided a backdrop for much of his work. We didn’t see much of the specifics of that war, but it worked well for Verdi’s tale of blind vengeance and self-destruction that afflicts the Calatrava family and those who come into their orbit. The opera opens on the starkly back-lit dining room of the seemingly plausible Calatravas, as we meet the unhinged Leonora grappling with her dedication to her father and her love for the unsuitable Don Alvaro.

The set (Rebecca Ringst) is timeless and stylish, with different configurations of walls, interior and exterior, and Sarah Derendinger’s black & white projections showing the images of brutality and grief. Perhaps this is why the characters seem so close to home – atrocities press down on a (more or less) regular family and drive it to extremes. Clues came in the nervous tics exhibited by the siblings – and then, when Alvaro’s accidental firing of the gun killed the Marquis, his daughter Leonora stood astride the corpse in the classic opera sex pose – a reminder that those Verdi father-daughter relationships can look rather unsavoury to modern eyes.

The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
Unsavoury could also be applied to the religious characters: Melitone’s contempt for the refugees in Act IV was one such example, throwing gruel on the floor in front of the chorus to illustrate how casual cruelty is normalised in extreme situations.

Tamara Wilson’s stunning, clean and huge but flexible voice would stun in any of the big Verdi roles – and it seems it already has. She is a newcomer to ENO but has already sung Aida at the Met. Anthony Michaels-Moore was the conflicted Don Carlo, turning on a sixpence from tenderness to anger.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones showed it is possible to sing those mid-period Verdi tenors (Manrico, Duke of Mantua et al) in a three-dimensional way. Robert Winslade-Anderson, standing in as the Marquis of Calatrava, made an impact in the short time he was alive on stage; Commendatore engagements will no doubt be coming his way.

Rinat Shaham sang the role of Preziosilla and, though her hard-boiled gypsy/recruiting officer/pimp hit the mark dramatically, she fell (unnecessarily because Mark Wigglesworth took the orchestra right down) into the trap of pushing in the middle of the voice and this clouded her rich sound and flexible coloratura. But the ‘Rataplan’ was spot on: another demonstration of the gratuitous brutality and pointlessness of war rather than a celebration of its glories. A Forza for our times.

James Cresswell sang a chilling Guardiano – all the more disturbing because of his mellifluous vocal line as he prepared Leonora for life as a hermit, cutting off her hair and creepily undressing her. Andrew Shore’s Melitone had some G&S-style rhymes in the English translation, eliciting giggles from the audience rather than squirms in the ‘confession’ scene.

Rinat Shaham & ensemble - The Force of Destiny - English National Opera - photo Robert Workman
Rinat Shaham & ensemble - photo Robert Workman
The smaller roles were all excellent, especially Adrian Dwyer’s Trabuco and Clare Presland’s Curra, and the 80-strong chorus magnificent throughout. The set felt like another character, with the revolve used for claustrophobic effect. The singers were mostly placed downstage centre and quite static (possibly Met-proofing the show in advance), and it meant the text was clear and the acting did not compromise the singing.

The ENO orchestra were on terrific form. Mark Wigglesworth kept the pace by not allowing for applause after the set-pieces, and the silences he did provide were all the more atmospheric as a result. Tamara Wilson’s ‘Pace, mio Dio’ was stunning, with its space and stillness as her hermit’s cave revealed itself to be the upturned dining room of the first scene and her hermit’s crown of thorns turned swiftly into a gruesome barbed-wire noose. For me the high point of the evening was Alvaro’s Act III aria ‘O tu che in seno degli angeli’, Nicholas Cox’s ravishing clarinet duetting with Gwyn Hughes-Jones’ pianissimo. Heartbreaking.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

ENO, 9th November 2015
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) - The Force of Destiny
Libretto: Francesco Marìa Piave, after Angel de Saavedra, with a scene by Friedrich von Schiller; additional text by Antonio Ghislanzoni.
Translation: Jeremy Sams
Director: Calixto Bieito
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth

Cast includes: Tamara Wilson (Leonora), Gwyn Hughes-Jones (Alvaro), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Carlo), James Creswell (Guardiano), Andrew Shore (Melitone), Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla)
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