Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The score remains - David Pountney rehearses Verdi's La forza del destino

Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Luis Cansino. La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
David Pountney, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Luis Cansino.
WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
On Saturday 20 January 2018, as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's Opera Weekender, Welsh Nationa Opera presented an open rehearsal for its forthcoming production of Verdi's La forza del destino. David Pountney directed Mary Elizabeth Williams (soprano, Leonora), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor, Don Alvaro), Luis Cansino (baritone, Don Carlo), Miklos Sebestyen (bass-baritone, Padre Guardiano) in three scenes from the opera. Kerem Hasan conducted, with Stephen Wood at the piano and WNO staff director Christopher Moon-Little. The opera is rarely done, partly because it is rather tricky to stage and needs large forces. The Royal Opera House last presented it in 2004, and prior to that in 1962 with revivals in 1973 and 1975. English National Opera presented it in 2015 (with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro), and prior to that in the 1980s (with Josephine Barstow as Leonora).

Luis Cansino. WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
Luis Cansino. WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff.
(Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
We heard three scenes, the first from Act Two where Leonora is first int,erviewed in the monastery by Padre Guardiano, then the scene from Act Four where Don Carlo taunts Don Alvaro until the two rush off to fight a duel, and then final scene.

One of the fascinating things about the event was being able to hear this music, sung by fine voices in such close proximity allowing a greater sense of detail and intimacy than would be otherwise possible in the opera house. It was also fascinating to see how scenes were shaped and re-shaped, with Pountney and the cast discussing all of the sort of detail which helps fill out the characters and their actions, some of it obvious from the opera but much of it not, which led to some enthralling discussions about apparently small but telling details.

I have to confess that I have always had a problem with the opera with its series of extreme co-incidences but Pountney's enthusiasm for it and lucid commentary, on the opera and on the scenes were were hearing, made it seem far more approachable.

He called it an epic piece and compared it to Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, saying that it had the same epic quality with characters being thrown together by accident and the vagaries of war. He also commented on the marvellous way the piece drives on with energy and compulsion.

David Pountney. WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
David Pountney.
WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
His characterisation of the personnel in the opera was fascinating, he called Leonora's father 'a crusty Spanish nobleman with right-wing views',  whilst Don Alvaro was described as a South American freedom fighter with Inca antecedents, and this noble Inca connection leaves Don Alvaro with a huge chip on his shoulder. Inevitably Leonora's affair with Don Alvaro would cause problems, but Pountney and Mary Elizabeth Williams also talked of Leonora as a Patty Hearst type figure. The opening scene of the opera, which involves Don Alvaro accidentally killing Leonora's father with a gun when Don Alvaro is trying to surrender, Pountney described as 'famously unstageable'. And of course the third figure is Leonora's brother, Don Carlo, who is clearly in the mould of his father and spends the entire opera in a relentless quest for vengeance.

Padre Guardiano, in the first scene we saw, has a significant name 'Guardian' and the production uses the same singer for him and for Leonora's father, to emphasise the sense that in Padre Guardiano she finds the father figure she did not have in her own father. Leonora, in this scene, is looking for redemption but Pountney finds her very much an extremist. She is not after an easy solution and is bent on punishing herself. The rehearsal was very illuminating here, making sense of a scene which can often be taken for granted.

One of the fascinating aspects of the scene between Don Alvaro and Don Carlo was its exploration of racism, something I had hitherto been entirely unaware of. At one point Don Carlo says 'you are contaminating me' and later refers to Don Alvaro's 'contaminated mulatto blood'. Pountney commented that not only is the racism handled in an intelligent and sympathetic way (ie with sympathy for the victim), but that it was interesting that Verdi should be writing about such things at this period.

This scene involves a pair of swords (the obsessive Don Carlo has brought them with him, determined to provoke Don Alvaro into a duel). The productionc crew found that it was problematical travelling on British Rail with a pair of swords so in rehearsal we had a pair of whips instead!

By the following scene, when Leonora rushes back on, it is clear that she is going crazy and her solo is hardly an aria, Pountney described it as stream of consciousness, with musical reminiscenes from the overture and from the scene where she was incorporated into the hermitage; it is a more music-theatre way of thinking rather than the closed structures which Verdi used in his earlier operas.

Mary Elizabeth Williams and Luis Cansino. WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
Mary Elizabeth Williams and Luis Cansino. WNO La forza del destino rehearsal in Cardiff. (Photo credit - Betina Skovbro)
In his introduction to the final scene, David Pountney commented that if you follow the stage directions, 'which directors never do' (!), Don Carlos is mean to be wounded off stage. At the end of the event, during questions from the floor, this came up again. Pountney explained that music and the visual arts seem to move at different rates, so that Verdi's music seems far less dated than the visual style in which his operas were produced. He also explained that what they do on stage is ephemeral,  temporary, whilst the score is permanent. So for Pountney a director is free to do whatever they like because the performance is about an interpretation with this group of people, done in this way, but after the event the score remains.

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