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La Forza del Destino

by on 21 February 2022

A Force to Be Reckoned With

La Forza del Destino

by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Piave

Regents Opera, St John’s, Fulham until 5th March

Review by Helen Astrid

Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny or the Power of Fate) is the only opera where the composer has titled his work with an idea or concept, but it is a relevant one.  It means that in his world individuals make decisions and choices that have repercussions.  Bad decisions, even slight transgressions, have to be punished.  It’s a moral order that permeated much 19th Century art and literature of the period.

Verdi composed the opera to end an extended hiatus from music; a three-year span during which he wrote no new operas, and actually told friends that he was no longer a composer.  The commission that brought him back to the opera house came from the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1869.  After considering a number of subjects for a new opera, Verdi chose a Spanish play called La fuerza del sino – The Power of Fate.  It was adapted by librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who also worked with Verdi on several other operas, including Macbeth and Rigoletto.

In La Forza del Destino the overbearing theme is of fate and it questions politics, nationalism, religion and racism; and the need for Italy to be rid of the Austrian oppression, even though this was never directly addressed.  Preziosilla, a gypsy girl does nevertheless sing ‘Viva la Guerra’.

Several of Verdi’s early operas were openly political, directly expressing the Italian struggle for national independence and even though his later operas became less overtly political, the themes of personal conflict and private passion such as in RigolettoIl Trovatore and La Traviata have broad political settings, with important public issues at their heart.  In La Forza, several scenes are set on the battlefield with soldiers and those displaced by war.  The desire to destroy the enemy, the hatred and enmity that comes with war has a parallel with one of the main plot lines, that of the hatred expressed by Don Carlo who is bent on revenge for the death of his father.

It is really quite something to put on a full-scale production of a grand opera.  This effort by Regents Opera was no mean feat: a reduced orchestra to twelve players did not detract from the richness and soaring lines of the score, most notable in the overture. 

A hand-picked selection of good soloists and ensemble did not disappoint.  Rory Fazan’s courageous staging transformed St John’s Church, Fulham into a multi-faceted platform, the venue’s Georgian and Gothic influence providing a perfect backdrop.

A contemporary take on the original 18th Century period, we found ourselves immersed in what appeared to be a military hospital with staff in full PPE wearing white hazmat outfits and with sanitising gel at the ready.  A throwback to Peter Sellars’ outstanding 1996 production of Theodora at Glyndebourne perhaps?

La Forza del Destino has a complex plot, but really only three main characters. Understanding those characters, and what drives them, can go a long way toward clarifying the story.  Don Alvaro, the son of a disgraced Spanish nobleman and an Inca princess, was born in the new world, and his parents have been executed.  Back in Spain, Alvaro is trying to establish his reputation.  But, given his ancestry, he’s frowned upon in noble society, and many people simply call him “The Indian.” The other two characters are brother and sister, Don Carlo and Leonora – the son and daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava, head of a proud but fading noble house.  Verdi is in his element writing for a trio of voices, there being no less than 73 in his entire operatic oeuvre.

After the famous overture, Don Alvaro is about to flee with Leonora, but the two lovers are caught by Leonora’s father.  Alvaro throws his pistols to the ground but one of them goes off and kills the father.  The force of destiny is pitiless and laughs at the fates of men, the theme weaving itself throughout the overture.

A double-cast is a sensible idea given the enormity of the opera (three hours and twenty minutes duration), particularly with all the last-minute cancellations and casualties de riguer these days.  Saturday evening’s singers were equal to the demands of the music.  Philippa Boyle as Leonara sang effortlessly with her top B flat in ‘Pace, pace mio Dio’ reached with ease and grandeur.  Her voice would not go amiss in a large house.

Catherine Backhouse as Preziosilla provided an eye-popping and turbocharged performance in both her arias.  Why Verdi wrote to the extremities for this fach I will never know.  The introduction of Beyonce-like hip hop dancing in the Rataplan chorus brought some humour to the sombre plot as did Masimba Ushe as Alcade, making an impression as the town mayor with his ‘La cena è pronta‘ in Act 2, donning a messy blonde Boris wig.

Mention should also go to Gerard Delrez for his fine cameo role as the Marquis of Calatrava and to Australian tenor Dominic Walsh as Alvaro. The real star of the show was undoubtedly Edwin Kaye as Padre Guardino, a voice to definitely watch out for.

However I urge any opera company to create surtitles translated into comprehensible English and to increase the font size by a few notches.

Perhaps the words of Oscar Wilde sufficiently sum-up the definition of opera: it is when a tenor wants to make love to a soprano but is prevented from doing so by a baritone. 

Helen Astrid, February 2022

Photography by Berke Can

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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