Tuesday 28 January 2014

Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Francis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris 2013

Jérémie Rhorer, Olivier Py, Sophie Koch, Patricia Petibon, Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Rosalind Plowright, Topi Lehtipuu, Philippe Rouillon, Annie Vavrille, Sophie Pondjiclis, François Piolino, Jérémy Duffau, Yuri Kissin, Matthieu Lécroart

France TV Culturebox, ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 21 December 2013

Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites seems to be a work almost made for Olivier Py. The French actor and director's profile is high at the moment, featuring prominently at the Paris Opéra this season and most recently having directed Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet for La Monnaie as part of a series of productions of the major French works of the 19th century - a project that is now on hold while he takes up the running of the Avignon Festival. Based on a drama by Georges Bernanos relating the martyrdom of 16 nuns executed during the French revolution, Poulenc's 20th century masterpiece would however seem to fit more closely with Py's very public profile in France as a Catholic and as something of a controversial figure or revolutionary in the opera world.

The two elements of course don't fit all that well together, but they do provide much of the conflict of opposing ideals that lie at the heart of the work and provide fertile ground for this particular director to work with. Common to both however is the idea of 'Liberté' and it's the manner in which this freedom is explored and eventually found by Blanche de la Force that is central to the work.  The idea of 'Liberté' consequently features prominently in the production, the word scrawled on a wall by one of the revolutionaries (one of the servants of the De la Force house) who are becoming more present on the streets, and it is transformed into 'Liberté en Dieu' (Freedom in God) by the time of Poulenc's incredible musical 'Salve Regina' setting of the execution of the nuns. There is some distance that has to be covered between those two points, but Py's direction and the superb casting for the production cover those well.

One of the main motivating factors that drive Blanche to this revelation, a subject that is at the heart of many of the dialogues in the opera, is fear. Blanche is a timid creature, not made for the real world, suffering from an almost pathological fear of death. Yet death and fear seems to surround her, first through the death of her mother as a young girl, and with the upsurge of revolutionary violence on the streets of Paris that waylays her carriage at the start of the opera on her way home to her brother and father. The outside world holds too many horrors for the young woman, so Blanche decides to withdraw from it and enter a Carmelite convent. She envisages some kind of "heroic life" as a Carmelite nun, but her ideas are soon dispelled by the Mother Superior, even more so when the old woman dies an agonising, blaspheming death soon afterwards.

Olivier Py's direction of this important scene is characteristic of the simplicity suggested by the setting, but also the underlying force of the highly-charged crises of faith and personal weaknesses that each of the women overcome over the course of events that lead to their eventual martyrdom. Madame de Croissy is pinned vertically high on the wall in her bed, beyond the reach of Blanche and the nuns in attendance on her, the harsh lighting from below the stage casting long terrifying shadows mark her bitterness at the nature of her painful, agonising death. Elsewhere the stage is similarly plainly adorned, the lighting depicting a world of stark black and white, with separating walls reflecting the reality of the convent's walls, as well as being symbolic of Blanche's retreat from the world.

Significantly, the walls open, separate and rise and at one stage to create the form of a cross, and it's in such moments - and in the little tableaux scenes - that Olivier Py makes his mark in his consideration of the work's religious significance. One doesn't need to be a Christian believer to recognise that Dialogues des Carmélites deals with more fundamental issues beyond those of questions of religious faith.  The director's own personal faith does at least encourage him to follow through the essential questions of freedom, equality and brotherhood (or sisterhood in this case) that relate to the Revolutionary setting and in how they pertain to religious belief - freedom from fear, freedom of expression, freedom to practise one's faith, freedom from the tyranny of death in the promise of an afterlife.

Where one stands on such questions no doubt determines the staging of the all-important finale, as can be seen from Nikolaus Lehnhoff's starkly final extinguishing of the light in Hamburg marked by each fall of the guillotine, or indeed in Dmitri Tcherniakov's complete subversion of the message in the hugely controversial Paris production where all the nuns incredibly remain alive at the conclusion. Olivier Py's creation of the final scene for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is as plain and simply dressed as it the production is elsewhere, with no additional dramatic effects. At the fall of the guillotine, each Carmelite nun, dressed in a plain white robe, simply drops her head and walks towards the light of the stars at the back of the stage. This more clearly responds to the religious message of the work, and - as one of the greatest coups de théâtre in all of opera - Py's staging of it is unquestionably just as effective as the scene ought to be.

Poulenc's score for the opera is also filled with the same kind of religious fervour and conductor Jérémie Rhorer consequently takes the orchestra through a robust musical performance of the work. In contrast to Kent Nagano's interpretation, there's less of the shimmering Debussy here and more of the muscular Mussorgsky that form part of the work's musical influences. There's almost a strident romanticism about the performance here, one that also hints at film-music type composition with dramatic underscoring, but Poulenc's score isn't so easy to pin down and Rhorer also manages to bring out moments of beauty in its expressionistic touches.

More than anything however, the score to Dialogues des Carmélites is attuned to the voices, to the dialogues, to conveying the words and their underlying sentiments with maximum expression. The outstanding cast assembled here are certainly capable of achieving that. It's not so much the variety of voices - although they combine and interrelate wonderfully across the whole female range - but it's particularly fine when it's sung by such a distinguished cast of distinctive singers like Patricia Petibon (Blanche), Sophie Koch (Mère Marie), Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine), Sandrine Piau (Sister Constance) and Rosalind Plowright (Madame de Croissy). It's a rare treat to have such singers all together in one production and they each bring considerable personality to the work. The male singers also have an important role to play and those are capably performed by Topi Lehtipuu (Chevalier de La Force), Philippe Rouillon (the Marquis) and François Piolino (the Convent Priest).

This production of Dialogues des Carmélites can be viewed on-line from the Culturebox website or on ARTE Live Web.  Subtitles on both sites are in French only.

Monday 20 January 2014

Thomas - Hamlet

Ambroise Thomas - Hamlet

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels 2013

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Vincent Le Texier, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Stéphane Degout, Till Fechner, Lenneke Ruiten, Rémy Mathieu, Henk Neven, Gijs Van der Linden, Jérôme Varnier

France TV Culturebox, La Monnaie - Internet Streaming

It's fairly evident that Ambroise Thomas's opera version of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is far from faithful to the original. As I've noted myself elsewhere, while it starts out with good intentions it quite literally loses the plot half-way through and becomes more a case of 'Scenes inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet'. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed if there were any way of conveying the essence of 'Hamlet' as music theatre, it's probably best achieved in the style of a 5-Act Grand Opera. Much depends however on the stage direction being strong enough to make up for the liberties Barbier and Carré take with the plot and characterisation. Directed by Oliver Py, La Monnaie's production takes a few liberties itself but manages nonetheless to make a strong case for the work.

Shakespeare purists might balk at the idea, but for Hamlet to fit into a grand opera template, it requires considerable pruning and some reordering of events. There's no ghostly apparition on the battlement of Elsinor castle at the opening here, for example. That regular feature of the grand opera tradition is saved to be employed for effect later when Hamlet himself witnesses it in the second scene of Act I. Before that we have a huge joyous celebration with chorus for the wedding of Claudius to Gertrude, a scene that is in marked contrast with Hamlet's gloomy disposition and his speech about the inconstancy of women. We also have a love scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, and a display of friendship between Hamlet and Laertes. Then we finally get the big scene where Hamlet learns from the ghost of his dead father of the deed most foul committed by his brother.

That's a great way to compositionally reorder the scenes for an opera, introducing all the characters, displaying a wide variety of emotions with arias and duets in a standard series of numbers and set-pieces, achieving the necessary impact without straying too far away from the intentions of the drama (even if the 19th century French language isn't quite as rich as Shakespeare's Elizabethan verse). It's particularly effective in Oliver Py's staging of the work (the 2013 revival of the production directed here by Andreas Zimmermann). Py's regular collaborator, set and costume designer Pierre-André Weitz, provides an ingenious subterranean labyrinthine construction of revolving and shifting staircases that resembles something out of an MC Escher puzzle, an impossible architecture of dark recesses that reflect the mindset of the characters.

All the characters are a mass of neuroses here, not just Hamlet - although is always remains possible that everything we see and how it plays out is just a reflection of Hamlet's disturbed mind. When we first encounter him in this production it's descending a staircase while cutting lacerations into his own chest and arms. Deeply affected by the death of his father, he's prepared to see conspiracy everywhere in the world, in the murder of his father. Even Ophelia and his mother's attempts to lighten his disposition are met with suspicion and mistrust. Hamlet however, particularly in this production, seems to be marked by a sense of futility to change events. His direction of the drama of the travelling players can be seen in this light, either an attempt to make the world and events conform to his dark personal view or as an indirect and impotent revolt against it.

Perhaps reflecting the state of Hamlet's troubled mind, Claudius and Gertrude are first seen stumbling down the same staircase as Hamlet, unsure of their footing. During the apparition of the ghost of his father, Claudius stumbles onto the stage in a drunken stupor, Gertrude laughs wantonly and Ophelia appears surrounded by shirtless men wearing masks who also torment her (or seduce her) during her death scene. There's plenty of room for such ambiguities in Hamlet, and Py makes the most of them without going too far overboard. Well, not often anyway. There are certainly some Freudian issues that can be played upon in the play, but some might find an entirely naked Hamlet being bathed by his mother before wrestling her to the ground and then dunking her under the water a little bit pointless.

As conventional as the arrangements often are (barring the unusual employment of a saxophone solo in the travelling players scene), the subject is nonetheless well handled by Ambroise Thomas, who matches the music and the numbers with the tone of the drama. As if the saxophone is some kind of indication however, things start to go a little wayward following the reenactment of Claudius' crime in 'The Murder of Gonzago'. It's as if after everything has been brought out into the open and laid bare the characters have nothing more to do but recoil at the horror of it all. Any further progression of the plot kind of grinds to a halt while the subsequent numbers are played out in the final acts. There's a disproportionate amount of time given over for example to Ophelia's mad scene, evidently to fill-out the soprano role, but also to satisfy the French mania of the period for this character.

Stéphane Degout has some uncommon challenges when singing the role of Hamlet, including singing a major aria entirely naked, but he copes admirably. Degout is making Hamlet very much his own much the same way that he is with Pelléas, singing these key French baritone roles with the required delicate lyric romanticism underpinned with a commanding strength of purpose. The same could be said about Vincent Le Texier's command of key bass roles in the French repertoire, bringing depth and character to Claudius here in the same way that he tackles Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is not so strong, a little wobbly in places, but she has a good voice and likewise copes well with some of the challenges of the staging, like having her head shoved into bathwater.

Key to the success of the production as a whole however, considering the emphasis that her character has in this version of Shakespeare's work, is the wonderful performance from Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Ophelia. Her French enunciation is excellent, her delivery flowing, her high notes expressive and well pitched. Equally important is the conducting of Marc Minkowski which brings a dramatic consistency to the work. This is perhaps achieved with some judicious cuts to the ballets and other excesses (I'm not familiar with the uncut version of the work), but it helps that there are no obvious divisions between the acts, the drama allowed to flow from scene to scene through the fine set designs, with the instrumental interludes used to connect and retain the mood.

Recorded at La Monnaie-De Munt on the 13th and 17th December 2013, Hamlet can be viewed for a limited time via on-line streaming from France Television's Culturebox site or through the La Monnaie streaming service. There are no English subtitles available on any of these platforms, but there are also no location restrictions on viewing.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Benjamin - Written on Skin

George Benjamin - Written on Skin

Royal Opera House, 2012

George Benjamin, Martin Crimp, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Victoria Simmonds, Allan Clayton

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's hard to judge and define what makes a work of modern opera great when you don't have history and the legacy of the composer to look back on. One traditional indicator is whether the work continues to gain new productions and draw audiences over the next few years, but in the age of recordings and Blu-rays you can judge for yourself whether a work has merit by how much it draws you back to view it again. On that basis, George Benjamin's Written on Skin is undoubtedly one of the best new opera works of recent years, a work that creates a compelling musical and narrative language of its own that draws you into its world and resembles nothing else out there.

The question of events retaining or gaining significance with time is, not by chance, a large part of what Written on Skin is all about. Based on a 13th century work by the troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing ('Le Coeur mangé'), Written on Skin intentionally and very specifically filters a very old story through new eyes and with a modern sensibility. Can a story that is over 700 years old really have meaning to a modern audience? Can we wipe out the intervening years and understand how a medieval audience would have related to the story? Is there really any way of bringing the past back to life? The intention of playwright Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin is clearly to show not only how storytelling can be made vital but how great art - and specifically opera - can also be transforming, violent and even dangerous.

To take us back however and indicate that we are exploring narrative, Martin Crimp creates a framework around the original medieval story. The opera opens with a team of 21st century angels erasing the time that has intervened between the period of story and the present day - "Fade out the living, snap back the dead to life" and "shatter the printing press" in order to "make each new book a precious object written on skin". The story they (and the composers) recreate is also a story about creation, going back to the very beginning where the old style of belief that has persisted is embodied in the Man. The Protector is a landowner who believes himself to be the centre of the universe, owner of everything he sees (including his wife's body), deserving of his position, one for which the sun has been designed for only one purpose and that is to shine on his land.

The man however wants his achievements to be immortalised and hires a Boy (a part taken by one of the angels) to create an Illuminated book that testifies to his greatness and the rightness of this order. This is a world where it was seen necessary to "Invent a woman... blame her for everything". His wife however doesn't recognise the Boy's depiction of woman and asks him "Can you invent another woman?  A woman who's real?" This new page in the book has unexpected consequences, the woman starting to think for herself, have desires of her own and act of her own accord. This disturbs her husband who, when he discovers (the vanity of the woman can't hide it) that she has been having a sexual liaison with the Boy, kills him and serves his heart up to her to eat.

Inevitably, the framing device of the angels is a very post-modern idea. Recognising that the drama is an artificial construct, the spoken dialogue is even related as if reading from a text, the characters referring to themselves in the third-person and ending sentences with, for example "...says the Boy". Even the fact that the main characters have generic names (Protector, Woman, Boy, Angel 1, Angel 2, Angel 3) is a recognition of this, but significantly, names do come into being with personality, the woman becoming "Agnès". This is particularly a commentary of the power of opera, since few art forms rely on such evident artifice as stage props, music and singing, yet few are as capable of reaching the heart of drama and emotions as this 400 year-old art-form.

The intention then is not to distance the viewer from the original story, but to actually show that despite the passing of time, despite the artifice of staged drama, that the story and the methods employed still have relevance and power. The opera itself is an Illuminated book that immortalises events and puts them into a format that can allow others to viscerally experience the past. That's actually quite an ambitious aim, since if it doesn't engage the viewer or is unable to make the characters come to life then the whole premise falls apart and the work fails. It's a testament then to the strength of the idea and the ability of the creators that the process of creation, the manipulation and playing-out of the story by the "angels", in no way detracts us from the "reality" of the drama recreated in front of your eyes. But then, that's the whole point of opera.

If at times Written on Skin does then feel like a calculated intellectual exercise, it's not a cold one, but one rather that is bursting with ideas, passions and meaning. Much of that is down to the concision of the dramatic setting and the precision of the words used in Martin Crimp's text, but it's brought to life by the equally precise and considered musical score by George Benjamin. It does exactly what the music ought to do flowing behind the words and "illuminating the page", accompanying the emotions, pushing them, but also filling in-between the layers, and in this particular work, short and succinct as it might be, there are many, many layers. Using a variety of ancient, modern and unconventional instruments including a bass viol and a glass harmonica, using discordant jarring modernist sounds and soft beguiling music, Benjamin's score also strives to bring it all together, taking the whole of now and looking back to then.

There's a similar level of concision, complexity and passion in the singing and Benjamin's musical writing allows room for the words to be heard and clarity to allow the voices to express them. It's not about singing beautiful phrases, but finding a voice that dramatically expresses the text and character. You can't ask for better singers in that regard or more fully committed or indeed technically accomplished performances than those given here at Covent Garden (as at the original world premiere in Aix-en-Provence), by Christopher Purves as the Protector, Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and countertenor Bejun Mehta as the Boy. Katie Mitchell's direction makes note of the artifice in Vicki Mortimer's boxed design with angel workshops surrounding the scenes where the drama is played out, but fully recognises the human passions that are played out within it. As with the world premiere in Aix, the composer George Benjamin conducts his own score.

That score is given a beautiful sound stage in the audio tracks on the Blu-ray release. It sounds great in LPCM Stereo, but has a greater depth and ambience in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The image is clear and, with a wider than usual 2.35:1 image (with thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), it looks quite cinematic. Overhead cameras with wide angles are occasionally used to present a different perspective on the drama. The extra features on the BD are brief but informative, with a 5-minute Introduction to Written on Skin, a 2-minute interview with George Benjamin and a Cast Gallery. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Japanese only.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2012

Marc Albrecht, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Svetlana Ignatovich, Vladimir Vanseev, Maxim Aksenov, John Daszak, Alexey Markov, Mayram Sokolova, Morschi Franz, Peter Arink, Gennady Beszubenkov

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

At the heart of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that recounts the legend of the invasion of the city by Mongol hordes. The librettist for the work however, Vladimir Belsky, also brought Christian elements into the story from the legend of Saint Fevronya and from folklore that lift the work towards flights of spiritual mysticism and rapture. There's something of a gulf then between the realistic literal depiction of the horrors of war and the pantheistic depiction of nature that doesn't entirely come together in Rimsky-Korsakov's score, but in many ways it just makes it all the more fascinating. I'm not sure that either the conductor Marc Albrecht or director Dmitri Tcherniakov manage to reconcile the inconsistencies in the opera, but it remains a glorious, intriguing work.

The first thing to note about Tcherniakov's direction is that he changes the plot slightly in order, presumably, to highlight the contrasts in the work and perhaps find a way to bring them together. Consequently he invents an 'end of the world' scenario, where Fevroniya is not some holy fool who communes with nature in the woods, but has fled there because, in Tcherniakov's prelude description, "after what has happened on earth, life can never go on as before". The beautiful set consequently depicts a Tarkovsky-like post-apocalyptic spiritual view of nature seen in The Sacrifice, and it's one that is also well-suited to the Cunning Little Vixen quality of Fevroniya's oneness with nature, Fevroniya even dining with human versions of the crane, the bear and the auroch that are referred to in the libretto. The intrusion of the outside world in the form of the Prince Vesvelod who asks her to marry him still doesn't fit realistically however with the main body of the legend of the invisible city and the attack on it by the Mongol hordes.

The beautiful scenes at the beginning and the end of the work (Tarkovksy again looking to be the inspiration for the familiar boxed lighted rustic house/room that is a familiar feature in many Tcherniakov productions) do at least serve to bookend the highlighted ugliness of the central scenes of the drunken revelry of Grishka in Little Kitezh, the horror of the invasion of the Tartars and the lamentations of the citizens at the destruction that has been visited upon them. You couldn't really say that the director captures the majesty of the long central third act, relocating it from the Cathedral Square in Great Kitezh to a makeshift refugee camp, while the miracle of the invisible city heralded by the spontaneous tolling of the bells is reduced inexplicably to a flickering strip of neon. The scene is very much underplayed, but when you listen to the gorgeous musical composition and striking arrangement of this act, it is undoubtedly a scene that is problematic to stage.

The first scene of this extraordinary third Act for example has long Parsifal-like symphonic and choral arrangements, as Prince Yury, a gusli-player and the Page sing for the fate of the city and its people in mournful laments with folk rhythms with a sweep of shimmering symphonic strings. It's deeply mystical in its sentiments, evoking the city of Kitezh as a celestial paradise, a light in the impenetrable darkness, a spiritual "haven and a refuge to all who suffer, thirst and seek". The act is divided however by a symphonic battle in which Prince Vesvelod is killed off-stage, the second scene taking place on the shore of Lake Yar, where Grishka and Fevoniya are held captive by the Tartars. Grishka has led them to Great Kitezh, but he has blamed their new Princess Fevroniya for the betrayal.

The third act should be the dramatic turning point of the work, the one that contrasts and attempts to join the two stark and contrasting visions of the world, where the actions of the good and faithful in the material world of war and death will be rewarded in the afterlife (in Act IV). The drunken, bitter, trouble-making and traitorous Grishka's has no conception of any world outside his own small ugly little existence, and it's such a shock to Fevroniya that she even thinks he might be the Antichrist. Tcherniakov isn't able to bring the two views convincingly together, but - as beautiful and uplifting as the music is - it's debatable whether Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer opposed to the religious Wagnerian liturgical touches of Belsky's libretto, manages to reconcile them either. Despite this, and despite the staging attempting to undercut the mysticism further, the third Act is still wondrously operatic.

If it all does indeed manage to come together and even raise itself onto another plane by the final fourth act, much of it is to do with the singing and Rimsky-Korsakov's writing for the voice. There are no real arias in The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, or overt folk dances and set pieces that you might find in other mythological works by the composer like Sadko or The Golden Cockerel. It's more through composed, with a Romantic sweep and even some Wagnerian quotes in spite of Rimsky-Korsakov's opposition. It's the naturalistic roll of the Russian consonants however, flowing out unstrained in long solid arioso singing and in glorious, glorifying choral arrangements that anchor the sentiments in the real world even as they achieve a level of rapturous transcendence.

The Amsterdam production is marvellous then in that it has the deservedly much-praised chorus of the De Nederlandse on fine form, but it also has a fine mostly Russian cast that give solid, unfailing performances throughout. They are led by the young soprano Svetlana Ignatovich, who fulfils every vocal and visual requirement for the saintly role of Fevroniya. The picture of innocence and strength, of faith and forgiveness, the completion of her transformation into martyrdom and sainthood at the end of the work is achieved with an ecstatic acceptance of her fate. Tcherniakov again downplays any elaborately literal vision of paradise much in the same way that Rimsky-Korsakov refuses to let the music push it too far (the direction of the orchestra under Marc Albrecht similarly restrained yet ecstatic, resisting the usual Russian bombast), but everything that needs to be expressed has been done so in the writing for the voices and in the performances here.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is released on Blu-ray disc by Opus Arte and it looks and sounds impressive in the High Definition format. In addition to a Cast Gallery, there is the usual informative look behind the scenes at De Nederlandse in a short 20-minute featurette with interviews that hint at the conflicts between the music and the staging. The BD is region-free and subtitles for this release are in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean.

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.