Cross-purposed Verdi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on December 30, 2013 at 11:43 am

Review – La Forza del destino (Live Stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Saturday 28 December 2013)

Il Marchese di Calatrava & Padre Guardiano – Vitalij Kowaljow
Donna Leonora – Anja Harteros
Don Carlo di Vargas – Ludovic Tézier
Don Alvaro – Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone – Renato Girolami
Curra – Heike Grötzinger
The Mayor – Christian Rieger
Trabuco – Francesco Petrozzi

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Design – Martin Zehetgruber
Costume – Heidi Hackl
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturgy – Benedikt Stampfli & Olaf A. Schmitt

Conductor – Asher Fisch

As Verdi operas go, La Forza del destino doesn’t have a complicated plot so it’s a shame that the director Martin Kušej’s best intentions to create a simple narrative was at best patchy.

Fortunately, the quality of the singing on the stage was up to the usual high standard as was the technical achievement of the Bayerische Staatsoper as they continue their commitment to making their productions globally available. And it was elevated even higher by role debuts of Anja Harteros as Donna Leonora and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Alvaro. However there wasn’t a weak link in the principal roles with each singer delivering musically intelligent performance in spite of Kušej.

On this occasion the laurels must go to Anja Harteros. From her first entry she dominated the stage both vocally and dramatically. In both her solo numbers as well as her duets and ensemble numbers she displayed enviable musical discipline with well-placed vibrato, a masterful control of dynamics and a range of vocal colour. As expected Pace, Pace, mio Dio was the highlight of her performance but throughout her portrayal of Leonora – especially her often missed vulnerability – was musically intelligent. Take for instance her opening Romanza Me pellegrina ed orfana or more especially the way she spun out the vocal line of Madre, pietosa Vergina in the second scene of Act Two and La Vergine degli Angeli at the very end of that same act.

As Alvaro, Kaufmann was equally confident both musically and performance wise. However – and as I have said before – there are times when I would like to see more finesse and sensitivity in his singing although admittedly there isn’t that much scope afforded for this in the role of Alvaro. However I did wont for me little more vocal colour and flexibility in his first duet with Leonora. I cannot deny that his singing during the opening of the Third Act wasn’t poised rather than sensitive yet still thrilling but I can’t stop thinking that in terms of musical interpretation his approach is still rather black and white with very little shading. However he does seem to spark off his fellow performers as his scenes with Ludovic Tézier’s Don Carlo demonstrated. And as the vengeful son, Tézier with his bright and supple baritone, was excellent once he had gained musical momentum after a rather wooden Son Pereda, son ricco d’onore.

Nadia Krasteva – hamstrung by a ridiculous costume – is in possession of what I would describe a typically Eastern European voice. Big and bold, deep and dark-hued it has a heaviness to it that isn’t unappealing and well suited to Verdi roles if not this one completely. It’s worth checking out her YouTube channel.

The remaining male roles were well cast. As both Calatrava and Guardiano, Vitalij Kowaljow didn’t quite distinguish between the two. However this might have been at the bdding of Kušej but if it was, it wasn’t followed through by the director himself. Similarly both Christian Rieger and Renato Girolami acquitted themselves well.

It was quite difficult to make out any of the subtlety or nuances in the orchestral playing however the Fisch’s choice of tempi was smart and he gave the singers the space they needed to do full justice to Verdi’s vocal lines.

Sadly, Kušej’s vision of Forza didn’t pass muster as well as the performances on stage. The set – at times reminding me of Tcherniakov’s set for his ENO Boccanegra – aimed at simplicity. Perhaps over simplicity. In paring down this opera to his interpretation of its elemental themes ultimately led Kušej to strip too much away.I also wondered what the dramaturgists Stampfli and Schmitt had contributed.

Set somewhere that seemed a cross between Mafioso Sicily and a war-torn country somewhere in the Balkans, the Calatrava’s familial tensions were played out over dinner in the overture. Indeed the table and the crucifix upon it were evident throughout the entire opera as recurring visual motifs regardless of whether it was home, chapel, prison or battleground. But apart from acting as visual anchors – with the only arresting use of the cross coming at the end in a last gasp of creative desperation – the director didn’t seem interested in developing any true sense of narrative around either item.

Parts of each act played out in a prison or demolished house but with little dramatic intensity. Kušej’s idea of laying out the stage in different perspectives for example was clever in as much as it gave him the opportunity to have an imaginary Leonora walk up the back wall but ultimately it was just a visual vanity. The minute that any real action was required – the battle scene or the duet between Alvaro and Carlo, the set became a single one-perspective entity. For the battle scene itself Kušej resorted to simply having extras (or the chorus) run from right to left – choosing movement over any sense of dramatic intent.

And the chapel – almost Nordic with its emphasis on wood – opened up to reveal (to me at least) a set of ‘priests’ who would not have looked out of place in a production of Parsifal. This idea was strengthened further still when Harteros (well her body doubled) was baptized via full immersion.

The scenes with the chorus were similarly unfocused with Kušej again failing to deliver any sense of a coherent narrative. Whether acting as corpses or indulging in a most predictable scene of sex and drunkenness, it seems that Kušej was at some points ‘directing by numbers’.

And the over-sized crucifixes of the final scene seemed like a last ditch effort to develop one of the visual motifs and bring a semblance of continuity and vision to the production. But having the singers clamber through them was clumsy but fortunately for us all, their impassioned performances overcame the distractions of the stage as they played out the final tragedy.

Costumes were basic and in the case of Kaufmann’s over-long hair looked like a device simply to differentiate him on stage. Similarly the lighting was so simple as to be ineffective.

And while the idea of having Calatrava and Guardiano played by the same singer should have been an opportunity for some real characterization, in reality this duality – as well as the doubling of the waiter with the mayor, and Preziosilla dressed as Curra for her first appearance – underlined the fact that Kušej seemed to have forgotten to give any direction at all to any of the singers. While the singing was excellent it was clear that the singers – left to their own devices – were resorting to their own dramatic lexicon to portray their characters. Some better that others.

Indeed throughout it seemed that somewhere – lurking in the shadows of the stage – there was a single unifying idea. But sadly for Kušej, ultimately that idea remained just outside his grasp.

And yet the singing – particularly of Anja Harteros – made the entire production worth hearing.


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