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Cursed Production of 'La forza del destino'

La forza del destino, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

Francesca Zambello's record, in her first season as Artistic Director of the Washington National, just fell to 1-1. After a knockout production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Zambello herself directed a new production of one of the lesser Verdi operas, the dramatically muddled and musically episodic La forza del destino, which opened on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was meant to provide the second panel of a Wagner-Verdi bicentennial diptych -- Verdi's opera was premiered just three years before Wagner's, in 1862 in St. Petersburg -- and it did so, just not in a way that was at all flattering to Verdi.

Good Verdi requires singers who have both power and finesse, and most of this cast was lacking in any kind of subtlety vocally -- perhaps the opera truly is cursed. Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve, who was a uniformly loud and ugly Don Alvaro, made one of the least distinguished WNO debuts in memory, leaving the impression that he was cast primarily for his looks, which seemed suited to the part of the dashing young man who tries to steal away the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava. No less shouty and unattractive was the Don Carlo of baritone Mark Delavan, not heard at WNO since Aida in 2003, as the Marquis's son who swears revenge on Alvaro, even after he becomes his friend under an assumed identity. (The opera's plot is a mess.) Caught between them is the daughter, Leonora, the role that received the best performance among the leads. Soprano Adina Aaron's voice was large, broad at the bottom and capably transparent at the top, with only the occasional strange bend flat, with an accompanying sound of vocal strain, on some high notes to cause complaint in what was a genial, if not extraordinary, company debut. (Aaron's fall in the final scene, caused by a prop on the floor, was perhaps another proof of the opera's famous curse.) Among the supporting cast, former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Valeriano Lanchas provided some much-needed comic relief as the bumbling Fra Melitone, while mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze made a hash of the role of Preziosilla.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s “Force of Destiny” lets down vocal standards, and Verdi (Washington Post, October 14)

Philip Kennicott, La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera (, October 13)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera offers new take on Verdi's 'Forza' (Baltimore Sun, October 14)
Zambello, not surprisingly, chose to update the action to our era, sadly without adding any new understanding to the story. This allowed her to indulge her fetish for machine-guns and explosions in the war scenes, as in her rather silly Aida at Glimmerglass just last year. The aim of this sort of modernizing gesture is to restore that "ripped from the headlines" sort of urgency to the story, but in this case it just made the ridiculous plot even more ridiculous, as laughter rippling through the house made plain. Unfortunately, WNO did not use the recently published critical edition of Verdi's first version of the opera (ed. Philip Gossett), but the 1869 revision with a few changes. This included moving the opera's famous overture to a point after the opening scene, where it was cheapened by serving as the backdrop for an absurd dumb show. The inn scene was set in some sort of sidewalk sex bar surrounded by shipping containers, with Preziosilla the young gypsy as a rabble-rousing go-go girl, and the Franciscan monastery became a non-specific, possibly Islamic community of some kind, albeit one singing about Mary, the mother of our savior, and "il Santo Spirto." You can leave lines out of the translated supertitles, but we still hear them sung.

The most memorable musical scenes, other than those featuring Adina Aaron's better solos, featured the puissant male chorus, although the frantically gestured conducting of Xian Chang sometimes undermined their scenes. The orchestra still sounded quite good, but the coordination between stage and pit was not always sure. She is a talented conductor, but I have heard of her more as an orchestral conductor, and her WNO debut was not auspicious. The sets, designed by Peter J. Davison, were large and handsome: the red-walled dining room of the Calatrava mansion, the neon-bright sex club, the graffiti-covered inner-city mission. It would probably work better for an opera that is taking place in the late 20th century.

This production continues through October 26, with a partial cast change (October 18 and 22).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seemed like they didn't want to choose an exact time in which to set the show, so it ended up not matching any. The opening scene was very old-world/traditional. The big war scene seemed like it was somewhere around the 1950s or 1970s until the single-serving disposable water bottles came out of nowhere. One of the leading roles (I don't remember his name, but he seemed to be running the sex show scene) served no apparent function in the story, but I think that's probably the fault of the librettist's adaptation of the play than anything in the production. I don't know what makes you see Islam in the church. Nor do I think the poor surtitling job was intentional.