“United in life and death”: Thoughts on the ROH’s haunting Forza

I couldn’t resist jotting some thoughts on my reaction to the recent and much-anticipated Royal Opera House production of La forza del destino, starring Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Ludovic Tézier, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, even though I’m not very familiar with this opera. When I first became infatuated with opera, I saw a recording of the Kaufmann/Harteros/Tézier version from Munich of several years ago, but that was the only complete version I’ve seen. I was intrigued, but a little confused by what seems a fairly simple story. Perhaps it was some directorial choices that made certain things unclear, whereas many who saw it were probably well familiar with the story from other versions and had no trouble following along.

Charles Lecocq, c. 1870, in the public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_forza_del_destino

In essence–SPOILER ALERT–the story begins in the home of the Marquis of Calatrava, who believes that his daughter Leonora has gotten over her infatuation with the foreigner, Don Alvaro (an Incan prince from the Americas). In reality, they’ve planned an elopement, and Don Alvaro shows up that very night, and overcomes the reluctance of Leonora to fulfill their plan. They are caught, however, by the Marquis, accompanied by the pursuing “destiny theme” in the music, and provoke a fight with Alvaro, who has tried to take the blame on himself. Alvaro, in trying to hand over his gun, accidentally shoots the Marquis—who, with his dying breath, curses his daughter. Both Leonora and Alvaro flee the same night, but not together; she believes he has escaped, perhaps gone back to his homeland. After overhearing her brother’s plan to find and kill his sister in order to avenge the family honor, Leonora begs Padre Guardiano to let her follow in the footsteps of another unhappy woman, and to commit herself to the life of a solitary anchoress in a cave near the friary. After some resistance, Guardiano agrees to support her. Meanwhile, after having sought Leonora for a year and now believing her dead, Alvaro joins the fight for Italy against the Germans. Rising in the ranks, he ends up—under another name—saving his foe, Don Carlo (who is also going by another name), and the two swear eternal brotherhood. Alvaro, having become mortally wounded, gives Carlo the key to a box that he keeps, revealing his identity, and asks Carlo to burn the contents. Carlo finds out the identity of Alvaro, and is eager that he should be healed–which is what happens–in order that he may kill him himself. Carlo reveals to Alvaro that Leonora is alive, but will die by his hand. After presumably both time and a game of cat-and-mouse searching have passed, Don Alvaro ends up committing his life to the friary in order to expiate the misdeeds of his past, and is much beloved by the populace. Finally, his whereabouts are discovered by Carlo, who provokes the dormant ire of the now-nonviolent Alvaro; they duel, ending up disturbing the peace of the nearby (dying) anchoress Leonora; Alvaro strikes a mortal blow at Carlo, and as the latter is dying Leonora and Alvaro recognize one another, and the dying Carlo, unrepentant still, kills his sister. During her final, peaceful passing, Alvaro finds in the situation and in her words assurance of his own redemption in spite of the brutal force of destiny.

In Charles Osborne’s book, The Complete Operas of Verdi, I was surprised to read that La forza, based on a play by Angel Saavedra and on a scene from Schiller, was first composed for a Russian audience and performed at St. Petersburg at the Imperial Theatre. The original ending was even more Russian, dark, and Dostoyevskian, coming directly from the play:

“Riva’s play ends, after the duel and the death of Leonora, with Alvaro’s suicide. He rushes to the cliff edge as the Father Superior and the monks appear on the scene. When the Father Superior calls him by his monastic name, Rafaele, he cries: ‘You can search for Father Raphael, you fool. I am a messenger from hell. I am the spirit of destruction….Hell, open your mouth and swallow me. Let the heavens collapse! Let mankind perish!’ And, with a final shout of ‘Extermination, Annihilation”, he flings himself over the cliff….The gentler ending as we know it today stems from the Milan revision of 1869” (Osborne 336).

Anna Netrebko as Leonora

Anna Netrebko’s low, melancholy soprano and the passionate but sadly tormented demeanor are a great fit for Leonora, and although Jonas is the only Don Alvaro I’ve seen, he fits the role beautifully with his winning charisma as well as his dark and dusky tenor voice and his phenomenal acting ability revealing the character’s guilt-ridden torment.

Don Carlo, Don Alvaro, “united in life and death”

Ludovic Tézier is a brilliantly cold Don Carlo, whose rich baritone mingles so beautifully with Jonas in their scenes together; the two always have the most compelling chemistry. Theirs is the friendship that might-have-been; it is for me possibly the greatest tragedy in the story. The extent of Don Carlo’s need for revenge goes beyond any kind of bounds of honor; it becomes sheer passionate excess; but one sees, in the budding friendship before he realizes the identity of Alvaro, the potential that this character has. The gorgeous friendship duet, “Solenne in quest’ ora,” is breathtaking.

Furlanetto as Padre Guardiano, with Leonora

And Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Padre Guardiano is spot-on; the beauty of Furlanetto’s voice, so brilliantly preserved and rich, is always a sheer delight to listen to, and he plays the role with the appropriate complexity; he clearly admires Leonora but doesn’t know what to make of the whole situation. And, like a well-meaning but possibly quite misguided Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, allows her to persuade him to an extreme course of action. (His voice sometimes made me weepy just with the sheer beauty of it.)

A friendship that might-have-been…

I liked the simple staging and updated dress, whose time period was a little hard to pin down. The glimpse into Leonora’s childhood with an abusive brother, which we witness during the overture, makes an imaginative and helpful background for Carlo’s fanatical, Javert-like pursuit of his sister and her would-be lover. Thankfully, Christof Loy’s direction is neither overly-symbolic nor unnecessarily ambiguous; any interpretation that can be attached to it is something that one considers only in hindsight—at least, this was my experience—because the drama takes precedence. In Loy’s use of the background film projections of close-up, exaggerated reactions of the prinicpal characters, generally in slow-motion, I was reminded, as was my friend Viv whose review I would love to link here if I can find it on a public site, of the Warlikowski Don Carlos of Paris, 2017, though I don’t believe Loy’s was as creative and inspired as the latter overall. Another curious stage choice was that, whether in the Calatrava household or later in the friary, we seem to be in the same “setting”–a dining room of sorts—and I couldn’t help but wonder if the director wanted us to believe that Leonora was simply exchanging one kind of submission (that of a daughter to an overbearing father) for another (that of an anchoress to a religious father). I appreciated the “deeper logic” that the director was trying to get at in the staging, with the recurring room perhaps more reflective of Leonora’s consciousness and her tormented memories, than the real setting itself.

In terms of direction, the only thing I had a negative reaction to–because it took me “out” of the drama, as not entirely making sense except in terms of directorial imposition–was the scene where the friars are accepting their new “charge,” their new anchoress who will dwell in the cave, after Leonora has persuaded Padre Guardiano to allow her this chance. At a certain point, the mood of the scene changes from the somewhat daunting, somber and inspired piety of the action, to one where Leonora seems to have a last-minute change of mind, but the monks physically force her to stay and she ends up in a restraint position on the ground. Here again, I felt a little bit of the director’s imposition: the idea that she has merely exchanged one form of submission for another. To me, this undermines the strength of the love-sacrifice of the story, and the strength of Leonora’s character. After all, however misguided Padre Guardiano was in agreeing to it, it was her request and her resolve that won the day, and I think we need to respect that in the storyline, as it shows no little strength of character. We are dealing with people of a different time and different ideals, including those of the Romantic—often to the point of melodramatic—19th century stage here, and, in my opinion, the piece is more poignant if played straightforwardly and as though the characters are acting out of their authentic convictions, and not with our own 21st-century abhorrence for the extreme choices of cloistered, consecrated, or eremetic life, with the added submission to authority that is inherent in such a choice. So, while I see what the director was saying, it was, for me, a momentary misstep.

I do want to give a special mention to the fabulous supporting cast. In particular, for me, Alessandro Corbelli gave us some welcome comic relief with his wonderful Fra Melitone, and Robert Lloyd was both haunting and intimidating as the Marquis…such a key role and a key scene in the psychology of Leonora, and of her sad destiny. Veronica Simeoni did a fine job in the role of Preziosilla, though hers was overall, for me, not as strong a performance as the others. (This may be my own unfamiliarity with the opera and the character’s role in the drama, and having nothing to compare with.)

The last duel…

In terms of Pappano’s brilliant conducting and the beauty of the orchestration, nothing could be better. The thrilling final scenes, the Don Carlo/Alvaro duel, and the heartbreaking look on Jonas’ face which brought tears to my eyes—all made for a brilliant finale.

My next Forza, I think, will be the 1958 video recording with Corelli, Bastianini, Tebaldi, and Christoff…and very much looking forward to it!

But I also look forward to revisiting this one; I very recommend this production, which was a good vehicle for an excellent cast and orchestra of this strange and poignant opera.

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Month #1 of (mostly) Met-on-Demand

*Note #1: if we’re friends on Facebook, you’ve probably seen these notes already…

**Note #2: These are very informal–and too lengthy–impressions from an opera newbie!

***Note #3: “Cliff’s Notes” Version of this post: Please see the 2011 Don Giovanni and the 2007 Eugene Onegin, if I absolutely must narrow it down. Also, fell head-over-heels with three bass singers: René Pape, Štefan Kocán, and John Relyea! (Already loved bass Ildar, of course!)

~~~

Oscar Wilde said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. Well, apparently I’ve been following this advice with the opera addiction. The subtitle to this post might be: “Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Give into My Met-On-Demand Addiction”. (It might also be subtitled: “The Month of the Bass and Baritone”.)

What enabled me to watch an unusual amount of recorded opera this month is that I happened to be, at several points, involved in an aspect of my sewing work which is too rare: that which allows for multitasking! (Mostly the hand-sewing part, which alone took a good 18 hours lately. YES!) So…here goes! Not necessarily in the order in which I watched them.

don-giovanni-collageDon Giovanni (Met, 2011)

Thanks to my friend and enabler, Viv, and partly inspired by seeing the recent HD cinema showing of the current Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside–which I had mixed feelings about overall, but enjoyed, particularly Simon himself–I finally watched the 2011 Don Giovanni (same set/production) with Mariusz Kwiecien, Luca Pisaroni, Štefan Kocán, Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, and Ramón Vargas.

Oh my. I have fallen in love with this opera all over again, and simply cannot get it out of my head. Mariusz is a most charming, seductive Don, and what shall we say of Luca? I see why he is a legend in this role of Leporello ~ vocally, it just doesn’t get better, but added to that is an impeccable comic timing and complete naturalness in the role. I particularly loved the way Mariusz and Luca play off one another ~ I have never seen a production which captures so well the relationship between Giovanni and Leporello, love-hate though it is, as Luca has expressed his interpretation in a recent interview…however much they may betray one another, is not unlike a dysfunctional married couple, each knowing the other so well. There are even moments of tenderness. When the Don makes his final act of defiance to agree to come to dinner with the Commendatore, there is a moment of farewell between them, which I have not quite seen anything like. (And indeed, Luca’s Leporello looks somewhat lost without his villainous master in the final minutes…)

This production captured the comedy of this incredible opera, and both the direction and the conducting–Fabio Luisi–kept a sprightly pace. In fact, the whole production felt sprightly and energetic! The Anna–dang, she’s great!–Elvira, Masetto, and Zerlina were also wonderful. I went from moments of irrepressible laughter–such as when Leporello imitates the Don in seducing Donna Elvira–to tears, as in Mariusz’s “deh vieni alla finestra”…yes, that charming Don manages to seduce his audience every bit as much as he did the 1800+ ladies.

Then, there was the new-to-me discovery of the glorious bass Štefan Kocán, the Commendatore! Wow! (Thank you, Gabriela, you were so right!!) It was some time before I could move on to the rest of the opera after the Commendatore’s death in the opening, so beautiful was his final minute of singing with Giovanni and Leporello that I had to rewatch it again and again. (By this point I must have watched that moment probably two dozen times altogether.) And of course, at the end, he returns in a most gloriously haunting finale…

All this, in a production that was done only 2 weeks after Mariusz had back surgery! Amazing. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. If you haven’t already fallen in love with this opera, this production will probably do the trick. 🙂

il-trovatore-2015-collageIl Trovatore (Met, 2015)

Be prepared for tears on this one. Not so much due to the operatic tragedy of the story, as the reception by the Met audience and orchestra of beloved Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who returned to his role of the Count di Luna after the announcement of his brain tumor and the months of chemotherapy that followed. (Just wait until the final bows and curtain calls…have tissues handy!)

This was only the second time I’ve seen a recorded production of this opera. I marvel at the vocal gymnastics that are required of our leads, and Anna Netrebko had me breathless as Leonora, particularly in her Act IV arias…dang! Dmitri, of course, shone as the Count di Luna, with such a powerful stage presence alongside the extraordinary bass Štefan Kocán as Ferrando…amazing! Dolora Zajick was a wonderful Azucena, and I very much liked Younghoon Lee as Manrico ~ very dynamic.

Loved the Goyaesque set and the period costume. Overall, a beautiful production.

Now looking forward to seeing the earlier Trovatore, from 2011…!

magic-flute-branagh-rene-collage**Movie Break!** (Not from the Met:) Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute, 2006

So…now for The Magic René–oops, I mean, The Magic Flute.

Okay, I actually watched this one before most of the others, and it’s not Met, but I thought it worth a mention, as I’ve become so hopelessly enamoured of René Pape. I’ve been remotely following him for months, but was utterly smitten after his performances in both Parsifal (Met, 2013) and his King Marke in the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde in early October.

I have never seen a production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte…nor Der ZauberRené for that matter ~ so, please take this with a grain of salt, but I thoroughly enjoyed Branagh’s quirky, random humor transposed into a fantastical World War I setting with an anti-war focus. Not to mention the Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque English libretto by Stephen Fry. Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), and glorious, mesmerizing magician-bass René Pape (Sarastro) led the cast. (Yes, as much as I adore Branagh, I daresay you know who was the magician that drew me to THIS movie…) The CGI effects are pretty cheesy in spots, but it’s somehow in keeping with the magical, goofy oddity of the whole.

nozze-collageLe Nozze di Figaro, Met, 2014

Another lighthearted moment was the Met’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the 2014-15 season (available on Met on Demand), with Ildar Abdrazakov, one of my favorite bass voices! Again, as familiar as much of the music is to me, I’d never seen a production and didn’t know how delightful and hilarious it is! I loved it. Ildar, as the witty servant Figaro, couldn’t be more adorable if he tried, and Peter Mattei (wow, another beautiful voice, and a new favorite!) as the womanizing Count Almaviva was just fantastic. The whole cast was delightful, and had me laughing up in the workshop…

Il Trovatore, Met, 2011

After the wonderful 2015 Il Trovatore that I watched the previous week, I watched the same wonderful David McVicar production–with some of the same cast, notably Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Štefan Kocán, and Dolora Zajick–in their earlier 2011 production, and was intrigued and delighted with the similarities and differences. It’s really hard to choose overall.

In both, Dima shines as the Count di Luna, Štefan Kocán is an irresistably ruthless bass Ferrando, and Dolora Zajick strikes me as a master of the gypsy Azucena. But here we have a different Leonora and Manrico, sung in 2011 by Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez. While I thoroughly appreciated the Netrebko/Lee combination of 2015, and vocally it is really hard to choose–and I am naturally a little more drawn to Netrebko’s vocal quality–yet I must say Sondra really won me over in this role, and particularly the chemistry between her and Marcelo, who was also a very endearing and strong Manrico. The character interpretation of Leonora was less melancholy than Netrebko’s, and one really gets behind Sondra, whose expressive face and adoring love for Manrico are so evident. I thoroughly enjoyed both, but I must give the edge to the Radvanovsky/Alvarez combination for our two leads. (That being said, if one has time for only one of the two productions, I might choose the 2015 if for nothing else than the beautiful reception for Dima, and the endearing and heart-wrenching applause and roses for him at the end…)

eugene-onegin-2007-collageEugene Onegin, Met, 2007 and 2013

A real highlight of this past opera week for me was the new-to-me discovery of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, another which I did a double header on, seeing both the 2007 production with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Renée Fleming, and Ramón Vargas, as well as the more recent production with Mariusz Kwiecien, Anna Netrebko, and Piotr Beczala. I had not known this story previously ~ about inaccessible love, haughty rejection, and the pride that destroys friendships and romantic love ~ based on the verse-novel by Alexander Pushkin. Okay, so I do have a tendency to love anything 19th century anyway, but I was captivated by these characters, and utterly loved it. It is *quintessentially* 19th century in its themes, with an ending I wouldn’t have expected in an opera. I won’t say more, but I’d like to write a more fleshed-out post on this opera alone at some point, rather than just pointing out a few highlights of these productions.

Both Anna and Renée are absolutely luminous in the role of the shy but stronger-than-she-appears Tatiana, and I really cannot choose between the two whose interpretation I prefer. (But I was more invested in Renée’s struggles, perhaps because it was my first Eugene, and I loved the whole production so much altogether.) Piotr and Ramón were both wonderful as the honorable, lovable, but almost irrationally-jealous Lenski…it was my first time seeing Piotr in anything and I was so impressed! For Eugene, I would be hard pressed to give a preference as to their vocal beauty in the role; but in terms of interpretation and sheer force of presence, undoubtedly, Dmitri has the commanding, striking haughtiness that instantly catches one off guard, as this character does Tatiana. He is positively statuesque. I mean, this Eugene really out-Darcys Mr. Darcy, and is more aimless and cynical than a Eugene Wrayburn. Unquestionably, I would choose Dima for the role, if I were forced to choose. (But I would very highly recommend both.)

Visually, both productions are luscious, and the costumes stunning. The 2013 is quite glorious to look at. My own preference, though, is decidedly in favor of the earlier 2007 production with Dima and Renée: it is utterly magical in its stark simplicity. A very minimalist set with a slightly “boxed-in” look (thematically in keeping with the bounded-in-a-nutshell situation of the characters…), but with the most stunning colors–I’d like to create a photo collage of the different scenes–and falling leaves, as though reflective of the beauty of romantic love even in it’s autumn…when it is rejected and inaccessible.

Both are so beautifully and feelingly conducted by Valery Gergiev, and there is a wonderful behind-the-scenes mini-documentary on this after the 2007 stream.

I will be rewatching both versions again and again no doubt, but particularly the 2007 version, which will probably go down as one of my favorite opera productions.💙💔

Of course, Eugene Onegin will be live in the cinemas from the Met in April of 2017, again with Dmitri, in combination with Anna Netrebko and Štefan Kocán…I absolutely cannot wait!

Afterward

Now that I’ve practically written a novel of notes, I thought I’d also mention that these are only a few of the opera beauties I’ve heard and seen this month, which includes a live-stream with Mariusz of Donizetti’s La Favorite, and the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme and René.

A few radio highlights include a really marvelous radio transmission of a Don Carlo with René (Philip II), Mariusz (Rodrigo), and Michael Fabiano (Carlo) from the San Francisco Opera of June 2016; also, another Don Carlo audio with René and Dima from the Met-on-Demand (audio only)…both stunningly beautiful. Also, it’s been great fun to experience, via radio, this year’s Met production of Guillaume Tell, with Gerald Finley (Tell), Marina Rebeka (Mathilde) and another magician-bass, John Relyea (the evil Gessler! A new bass love!!). Then, this past week, another live radio broadcast of the Met’s Don Giovanni, this time with Ildar Abdrakazov in the lead! A most marvelous Don…perfect! And this has not remotely covered it all.

It’s a huge joy to be part of the Sirius Opera Fans group and Met Opera Live in HD Fans group (both on Facebook), which have been such inspiring places to discuss opera love, to learn, and to share insight. (And to find more opera-enablers!! 😉 )