Thursday, 2 January 2014

Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Giuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2013

Asher Fisch, Martin Kušej, Vitalij Kovalev, Anja Harteros, Ludovic Tézier, Jonas Kaufmann, Nadia Krasteva, Renato Girolami, Heike Grötzinger, Christian Rieger, Francesco Petrozzi, Rafał Pawnuk

Staatsoper.TV Live Internet Streaming - 28 December 2013

The weakness in Verdi's La Forza del Destino lies within the imperfect fractured nature of the subject itself, while the strength of the work lies in Verdi's attempt to bring those various elements together into a coherent form. Like most of Verdi's work in his mature middle period before his late masterpieces, he doesn't entirely succeed in overcoming the structural weaknesses of the plot. Sometimes a director, a conductor or a singer can bring an internal consistency to these works, but La Forza del Destino still remains a challenge. It's not one that Martin Kušej can do much about in his Bavarian State Opera production, but there's still a lot to admire in Verdi's work, particularly when it has a cast attached to it like this one.

The imperfections in La Forza del Destino are most evident in the structure. Act I (with its famous overture in the revised version) - in which the Marquese di Calatrava is accidentally killed by Don Alvaro while he is attempting to elope with the Marquese's daughter Donna Leonora - is detached by a number of years from the main body of the work. Across those intervening years, the three figures at the centre of this tragedy have each been struggling to live with the consequences. Donna Leonora has taken religious vows disguised as a man and is seeking peace living as a hermit. Don Alvaro has joined the army and in a quest for redemption. Calatrava's son Don Carlos is looking for revenge and wants to kill both Leonora and Alvaro. There's nothing to unify those characters other than the Force of Destiny that no man can escape. And a lot of coincidence.

Verdi at least attempts to hold it all together with some consistency and dramatic through composition with the unifying Fate theme acting as a connecting leitmotif that weaves throughout the work. Given the problems of the diverse characters and their diverse aims, it's an imperfect effort and Act I and II drag on with little dramatic drive and only a few standard numbers thrown in (Preziosilla's patriotic call to arms in 'Al suon del tamburo') to enliven all the moping and soul-searching. Dramatically, the work only really develops in Act III and IV when Don Carlo and Don Alvaro meet-up under assumed names and temporarily become firm friends. Verdi's advanced musical language however enables him to make much more of the complex characterisation of hatred and friendship in a time of war, as well as the mixed emotions of a man rejoicing that his injured enemy has been saved since it means that he can kill him himself.

Even with Verdi's score, this kind of characterisation can only really be made to work with a strong cast, and the Bayerische Staatsoper have a cast to die for, or a cast who will die for it, if you like. Anja Harteros is a world-renowned performer with a powerful expressive voice and fine acting ability. Whenever I've seen her however, she's been less than precise in her pitch and range, and it's tested here as Donna Leonora in La Forza del Destino. You could put any minor failings down to the exigencies of live performance, particularly when one is as passionately involved in a role as Harteros seems to be here, but it's the humanity of her situation that is key here and that's delivered with complete commitment. You expect no less from Jonas Kaufmann and he throws himself at the role of Don Alvaro. There are no surprises here just solid reliability, but when you have such meticulous control and such a voice, you can't really ask for more.

The lack of any real opportunity or appropriate circumstance for Donna Leonora and Don Alvaro to make any real connection is one of the structural problems with the work, and it prevents the audience from hearing the soprano and tenor together (although there have been other opportunities for Harteros and Kaufmann to sing Verdi together this year, most notably in Don Carlos at Salzburg). On the other hand, it's the Don Alvaro/Don Carlo situations provide plenty of opportunity for fire, and Kaufmann has a worthy adversary in baritone Ludovic Tézier. Another solid performer, Tézier really raises his game in this company and is superb in his solo arias, in his duets and in his dramatic interaction with the others.

Martin Kušej's approach to La Forza del Destino is much the same as his Macbeth for Bayerische. It's minimal, clean, modern and darkly pessimistic, the sets plain and functional for the earlier acts, although the use of a table throughout, like it was borrowed from the rehearsal room is rather odd. It distinguishes itself with one or two striking symbolic images that hit home what the work is all about (even if they do nonetheless, like Macbeth, take a little time to set up and further break the flow of the work). Whereas a killing field of skulls was the abiding image of the death and destruction under the reign of Macbeth, here in La Forza del Destino, it's the use and the image of the cross that is the dominant image for religion, for faith and for destiny here, and they result in a mass of large white crosses forming a rocky outcrop for the vital final act denouement.

Kušej also makes important note of the idea of war and how central it not only to this particular opera, but to Verdi's viewpoint and revolutionary involvement in the Risorgimento throughout his career. Act III, for example, has as a backdrop an unsettling overhead cutaway of a house tilted at 90-degrees with a hole ripped through its centre. Symbolic, you think? "Everything is upside down", Fra Melitone observes at one point, but the concept of lives violently ripped apart is in the background throughout La Forza del Destino. There can be no peace for any soul while one is at war; no true brotherhood, families destroyed, men who would in other times be friends are now enemies, even pride and honour are twisted by hatred and the desire for revenge.

If nothing else, that sentiment came across loud and clear in Martin Kušej's production, but the tragedy of this situation - beyond the pure melodrama of the plot - was also superbly enacted by Harteros, Tézier and Kaufmann. Imperfections remain, but La Forzo del Destino still proves to have a potent mix of all the vital Verdi ingredients that make great opera.