09/22/2022 - & October 1, 9, 16, 2022
Giuseppe Verdi: La forza del destino
Liudmyla Monastyrska (Leonora), Gregory Kunde (Don Alvaro), Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Don Carlos), Marko Mimica (Il padre Guardiano), Roberto de Candia (Fra’ Melitone), Annalisa Stroppa (Preziosilla), Andrea Giovannini (Trabuco), Marco Spotti (Il marchese di Calatrava), Natalia Gavrilan (Curra), Jacobo Ochoa (An alcalde), Andrea Pellegrini (Un chirurgo)
Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Gea Garatti Ansini (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Roberto Abbado (conductor)
Yannis Kokkos (stage director, sets, costumes), Anne Blancard (dramaturgy), Giuseppe di Iorio (lights), Marta Bevilacqua (choreographic movements), Sergio Metalli (projection designer)
(© Roberto Ricci)
La forza del destino is a problematic opera. Among Verdi’s mature operas, i.e. his middle period starting with Rigoletto and onward, it suffers from the weakest libretto. If it can be imagined, the story is even more implausible than Il trovatore’s.
In the mid‑eighteenth century, Don Alvaro, a nobleman of mixed blood from South America, has fallen in love with the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava of Seville. The Marquis is vehemently opposed to this relationship. The two are interrupted while attempting to elope and the father is accidentally killed. The two lovers are separated and lose touch with one another. Leonora seeks refuge in a monastery and becomes a hermit. Don Alvaro continues to look for her.
Meanwhile, Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo, seeks revenge on both. In the end, the irate brother provokes Don Alvaro, who has now become a priest, challenging him to a duel. Don Carlo is mortally wounded. Alvaro beseeches a nearby hermit to hear the dying man’s confession. The dying Don Carlo recognizes and kills his sister. No, it cannot get crazier.
After the failed elopement and the impossible‑to‑stage accidental death of Leonora’s father, it’s nothing but gloom and doom. No more love duets, and, more importantly, no hope. The best we can imagine is Leonora and Alvaro living their lives (separately) in peace and repentance. Far from a cheerful prospect.
In an attempt to lighten the gloom, a light‑hearted character, Preziosilla, is introduced. This follows the aesthetic principle that alternating between the tragic and the comic can afford the dramatic flow, as well as the public, some relief. This is also true as manifested in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. However, in that masterpiece, the comic relief involves the main characters, whereas Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto is superimposed, having no relevance to the central drama. The result is a dramatic flop. I have yet to meet a single opera goer who has enjoyed the inane scenes with Preziosilla.
Nonetheless, La forza del destino includes some superlative music, and this is precisely why it survives and is even one of Verdi’s frequently performed and recorded operas.
I think it’s near impossible to successfully stage this opera, given the woefully weak libretto. Stage director Yannis Kokkos’ conventional approach did not result in any major outrage. The epoch was transposed from the 1740s, the time of the war of the Austrian Succession, to what looks like the twentieth century, though most costumes for the Preziosilla scenes looked like they were dropped in from Cavalleria rusticana.
The battlefield looked like a hybrid between German expressionism and present day bombed‑out Syria. Oddly, Leonora’s dress in the opening scene looked eighteenth century. The reason for this indeterminate chronological transposition remains unknown and unjustified. Nonetheless, the sets were “efficacious” – shades of gray and black in all scenes to accentuate the gloominess. Most harrowing were the sets of the war camp, with their distressingly destroyed dwellings.
More imaginative sets could have been conceived for the last scene with the hermit Leonora’s cave facing a ravine. (In the original 1862 version, Alvaro throws himself off a cliff following the death of both Calatrava siblings, Don Carlo by his hands and Leonora by her brother’s).
On a happier note, vocally this Forza was a near complete triumph. Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska was majestic as Leonora, a true spinto soprano capable of confronting the huge demands of the role. Though the role is relatively brief, her two arias are among Verdi’s most demanding, both vocally and dramatically. She deftly set the tone, ensuring a measured dramatic intensity. Her diction was impeccable, though some Italians in the audience thought it too “foreign”. In the aria “Pace, pace, mio Dio”, her emphasis on the phrasing of “languir”, “il mio soffrir”, “in preda a tanto duol” was exemplary.
American tenor Gregory Kunde is the only tenor today who can boast having sung both Verdi’s and Rossini’s Otello. I remember hearing Kunde in my home city of Montreal, singing a delightfully virtuosic Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani. Rarely has a tenor seen such a trajectory from light lyric bel canto tenore d’agilità to dramatic tenor. He has managed this long journey with care and intelligence. His voice showed no strain in a dramatic Verdi role such as Alvaro. Moreover, his bel canto training ensured impeccably tasteful phrasing and nuanced expression. Especially beautiful was his phrasing in “La vita è inferno all’infelice...O tu che seno agli angeli”. In his duets with Don Carlo, his singing was elegant, not once overshadowing the baritone.
Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat was both a revelation and a huge hit with the public. His baritone is warm and rich, though I wouldn’t call it Verdian. Though his diction was good, his acting lacked nuance. He was the unwaveringly angry villain from start to finish, which is tiresome for an audience. This is a pity, as his impressive voice evoked the perfect Don Carlo. The public, though, was totally seduced.
In the role of Padre Guardiano, Croatian Marko Mimica was majestic. His warm bass conveyed the nobility of this man of God. Italian mezzo Annalisa Stroppa was a first‑rate Preziosilla. Though vocally alluring, with clear, impeccable phrasing and head‑turning beauty, stage director Kokkos chose to have her act the stereotypical “dubious fortune teller,” missing an opportunity to make more of her charismatic presence. Roberto de Candia was a superlative Fra’ Melitone, excellently portraying the ill‑humoured uncharitable priest. Avoiding the hammy approach made his interpretation convincing. Of the minor characters, Andrea Giovannini was first‑rate, as character actors often are, and his portrayal utterly slimy and sinister.
It is to be noted that at this opening night of the Verdi Festival, protesters were distributing pamphlets maligning conductor Roberto Abbado for having engaged the Orchestra and Chorus of the Bologna Opera rather than that of Parma. Considerable booing from the gallery greeted Abbado as he went to the podium.
The vast majority of the public was unimpressed and received him with much louder cheers of praise. This went on throughout the opera with the protesters’ voices gradually subsiding. Abbado’s conducting was especially inspired in the overture, but also throughout the opera. With its relentless gloom and doom, this opera may sometimes feel insipid, but Abbado’s brisk tempi insured otherwise. His sensitive support of Kunde and Monastyrska in their demanding arias exemplified what a great conductor is capable of: the difference between a workmanlike performance and high art.
Despite its forgettable staging, drab costumes, and weak plot, vocally and musically this was a formidable evening of stimulating performances.
Ossama el Naggar