Saturday 13 April 2019

The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production

Verdi: La forza del destino - Jonas Kaufmann - Royal Opera (photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Verdi: La forza del destino - Jonas Kaufmann
Royal Opera (photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Verdi La forza del destino (1869 version); Jonas Kauffman, Liudmyla Monastyrska, Ludovic Tezier, Aigul Akhmetshina, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Alessandro Corbelli, dir: Christoph Loy, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Superb singing let down by a production which lacks the headlong energy that this Shakespearean opera needs

Covent Garden's new production of Verdi's La forza del destino is double cast, but in a way which is somewhat mix and match, so that when we caught up with Christof Loy's production on Friday 12 April 2019, we heard Jonas Kaufmann as Don Alvaro, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Donna Leonora, Ludovic Tezier as Don Carlos and Aigul Akhmetshina as Preziosilla, with Robert Lloyd as the Marquis of Calatrava, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Padre Guardiano and Alessandro Corbelli as Fra Melitone. Antonio Pappano conducted.

The production was originally seen at Dutch National Opera and the associate director was Georg Zlabinger. Designs were by Chritian Schmidt, choreography by Otto Pichler and lighting by Olaf Winter.

Verdi: La forza del destino - Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tezier - Royal Opera (photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Verdi: La forza del destino - Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tezier
Royal Opera (photo ROH/Bill Cooper)
Verdi's opera is a deliberately sprawling work (the composer deliberately chose the source play because of its huge range), with a complex textual history. Verdi never did quite solve some of the problems and modern directors often tinker, but Loy stayed with Verdi's final (1869) version which places Alvaro and Carlos' duet and duel early on in Act Three, followed by the crowd scenes culminating in Rataplan.

During the overture, we saw scenes from Donna Leonora and Don Carlo's childhood, setting up the family tensions. And throughout the opera, this room would be important as it formed the basis for elements of the set for all the other scenes, even the scenes in the military camp included the door frame and panelling, showing that the catastrophe of the opening Act was never far away. And to emphasise this, at crucial moments a huge video of the event would play back, looming the event huge on the rear wall. The crucial final scene took place back in the same room as the opening with, at one point, the older Leonora and Alvaro re-creating the poses of the young Leonora and her brother!

You felt that individual scenes had been composed by Loy as tableaux, moments like the reception of Leonora into the monastery seemed deliberately painterly and other scenes had a static visual quality. This element of the tableaux was emphasised by the black drop curtain coming down between each scene, and some of the gaps between scenes were unconscionably long. This drained the energy from performance, something which this most Shakespearean of operas needs. I found myself missing David Pountney's 2018 production for Welsh National Opera [see my review]; for all its faults, this captured the headlong energy of the piece, and had the advantage of Pountney's re-studying of the work's essential dramaturgy, combining the roles of Curra (Leonora's maid) and Preziosilla into an all controlling fate figure.

The effect of all this was to throw the singing into high relief, and very fine it was too. But La forza del destino is not an opera that can be carried by the singing, it is too diverse and no amount of beauty and skill in Leonora's 'Pace, pace mio Dio' can make up for flabby drama in the preceding Acts (when we see Leonora in the final scene of Act 4 she has been absent from the stage since the middle of Act Two).

Liudmyla Monastyrska made a moving Leonora, and sharing a role with Anna Netrebko must have an element of the thankless task about it. However, Monastyrska made the role her own, using her large voice subtly. Whilst it does have a significant vibrato under pressure she was able to fine it down to create quietly moving moments. Monastyrska is not the most dramatic of stage presences, but she made this count as part of Leonora's essential fatalism, giving the character an element of solidly accepting fate.

For all Jonas Kaufmann's thrillingly baritonal tenor voice, his Alvaro was quite inward and melancholy, though prone to outbursts of violence, again with a sense of dwelling on the past. Partly this was because of the way Kaufmann sings Verdi's line. Kaufmann is not a spinto tenor (few are), and has a tendency to fine his voice down and sort of croon some of the high lines. This is enormously effective but makes the character brood far more. This was an intelligent and beautifully crafted performance, highly theatrical too, but part of me longed for a little of the high-wire thrill that a tenor like Gwyn Hughes-Jones [seen last year at WNO and at ENO in 2015].

Ludovic Tezier sang Don Carlo with the sort of flexible yet powerful baritone which is also becoming rare in Verdi. Again this was a beautifully crafted performance, and Tezier very much gave us a slow burn. This Don Carlos is not certifiably crazy, but the sense of injustice burns away at him and grows throughout the opera. In the review of the original Dutch performance of this production on Bachtrack, Don Carlo is described as 'a rapidly ageing – and raging – alcoholic' which makes sense but I did not get much of that in this performance at Covent Garden.

Aigul Akkmetshina did everything that was asked of her as Preziosilla, which is a lot, ranging from attempted seduction of Don Alvaro, to creating a series of musical-theatre style dance numbers for the final scene of Act Three. Akhmetshina has a high, bright mezzo-soprano voice and is perhaps not a conventional Preziosilla but she shone here with a winning personality and I look forward to her in further roles (she is currently on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme).

Robert Lloyd made a powerful and wonderfully unbending Marquis, whilst Ferrucio Furlanetto was a remarkably forbidding Padre Guardiano who was rather less sympathetic in his Act Two scene with Leonora than some. Alessandro Corbelli is a brilliant comedian and sang the role of Fra Melitone here and in Amsterdam, so the slightly vicious element to Melitone's comedy in Act Three were presumably deliberate.

The smaller roles were all well cast, but tended to get lost in the welter of people on stage (the production used a large chorus, dancers and actors) and in the big scenes it was difficult to see who was singing. But Carlo Bosi impressed as Mastro Trbuco, with Michael Mofidian as Alcade, Jonathan Fisher as the surgeon and Roberta Alexander as luxury casting as Curra.

The chorus have a lot of work to do here, Loy has a lot going on in the big scenes and the Covent Garden chorus participated enthusiastically in the organised may-hem of the inn scene, and in the musical theatre elements of the staging at the end of Act Three. Though quite why we needed big musical-style chorus song and dance numbers I do not know and the scantily clad male dancers, delightful though they were, seemed out of another opera (or operetta entirely). Choreographer Otto Pichler is a regular collaborator of Barrie Kosky, and the whole approach to camp scene in Act Three reminded me of this latter director. Having decided to stick with the 1869 version, for all its problems, Loy failed to convince us and seemed to give up.

Antonio Pappano and the orchestra brought a rich palate to Verdi's score and made the famous overture count despite the distractions of the dumb show on stage. However, the beauty and intelligence of Pappano's pacing meant that the pauses between scenes were all the more frustrating.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
  • A musical encounter between two traditions: classical guitarist Christoph Denoth's exploration of tango - Tanguero: Music from South America  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Barrie Kosky’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Komische Opera, Berlin
    (★★★★ - musical theatre review
  • Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo  - (★★★★concert review
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
  • A stylish My Fair Lady at the Komische Oper in Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★★★) - concert review
  • More than just Costly Canaries: Bridget Cunningham on re-capturing Handel and the importance of research  - interview
  • Bach CD round up: Violin, piano, harpsichord, organ - recent instrumental discs - CD review
  • A stirring revival: Hubert Parry's Judith in a triumphant performance from William Vann, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto (★★★★) - Cd review
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