La forza del destino: Showdown at the Staatsoper corral

Preziosilla is onto Carlos’s game.
(Note: picture is a different cast, though same Preziosilla.)
(Photo: Opera Chic)

Of all the caves in the world, you had to walk into mine.  La forza del destino might not be the most outwardly coherent of operas, but Verdi didn’t call it an “opera of ideas” for nothing, and it has an agenda under all that shaggy discursiveness.  Unfortunately David Pountney’s Wiener Staatsoper production, shorn of almost half an hour of music, has the ideas underlined and highlighted and little of the dark chaos.  This messily-staged revival and Philippe Auguin’s conducting went unstoppably forward like the plot’s bullet fired by mistake, and despite four strong singers it all felt rather off.  And the cowboys, well, they were a mistake too.  Giddyap, pardner.

Verdi, La forza del destino.  Production by David Pountney, conducted by Philippe Auguin.  With Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora), Fabio Armiliato (Alvaro), Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlos), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano), Tomasz Konieczny (Fra Melitone), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla)

If you’ve ever met me, I’ve probably told you how you have to read War and Peace.  (Because you do.  It’s wonderful in every way.  It’s my favorite novel.)  La forza del destino is kind of like War and Peace.  Shit happens, some personal and some global-historical, and sometimes there’s little the characters can do to control it.  They wander through things that are larger then themselves.  Some glory in the chaos (Preziosilla) , others try to hide from it (Leonora, eventually Alvaro).  In the opera, you don’t have Tolstoy’s narrative voice telling you all the fateful stuff.  But if you’re at the Staatsoper, you have David Pountney, who’s even more pedantic.

As suggested by the opening video of a butterfly starting an enormous wheel, the production is about coincidences and unintended consequences (I was sadly distracted through the whole overture).  Christianity provides a kind of anchor for these characters adrift, who finally all end up assailing the monastery for help and guidance.  The inn is a place of momentary respite, where many Bibles seem to provide a veneer of security.  The period is sometime during the twentieth century, but only vaguely so (there are still swords for dueling).  As an interpretation it makes sense, but it hits you over the head a few times too often.  Moreover, its extreme minimalism and attendant demurral to create a world outside the principal characters undermine the portrayal of larger forces (of DESTINY) at work.  When we’re suddenly at war in Act 3 the means are not great enough to give us any real atmosphere, just some halfhearted projections.  Destiny’s force never seems adequately cataclysmic.

Crosses, crosses everywhere (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

The sets are simple and OK enough, but the chorus in the inn scene is a somewhat inexplicable band of sexy dancing cowboys, including also sexy dancing cowgirls, and later at war we gets sexy dancing nurse nuns.  I think most opera suffers from an excess of good taste but I’m going to make an exception here.  We have lost any opportunity to establish who these people are in favor of sexy dancing cowgirls.   If the dancing had been fun or meaningful, it would have been alright, but it was just awkwardly bad.  The execution as a whole was so messy that I really can’t say how good or bad the production as originally conceived was.  The buttons in particular were hopelessly off, with some awkward silences and interruptions–the audience had no clue when they should clap and it made the reception feel tepid just because it was unclear.  (The lights, blocking, and conductor should always signal when we should applaud.)

The score suffered from some major cuts, particularly in the choral and minor character material of Act 3.  Not that I really miss Preziosilla’s “Al suon del tamburo” and Trabuco’s aria as such, but they give this opera its texture, its wildly incoherent patchwork of random events and moments that confuses the characters as much as it does me.  Making Forza neater seems to go against its spirit.  And the one major rearrangement–reordering some scenes in Act 3 so the tenor and baritone get a break between their duets and then cutting directly to the Rataplan–destroys the wonderful sequence of the Act 3 finale entirely.

Opening scene (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

Conductor Philippe Auguin favored a fast and loud account of the score that, while sometimes exciting, similarly allowed for few excursions into anything.  We’re getting this sucker done in under three hours or else, he seemed to say (my recording [Levine] is two hours fifty-six minutes total and the intermission was 20-25 minutes).  By the time Leonora pled for pace, pace, I was thinking, you and me both, sister.

The singing was mostly very good, though not transcendental enough to overrule these production and conductor-ly deficiencies.  Fabio Armiliato offered solid and admirable Italian tenoring with good phrasing and intonation, fine coloring and very loud and rich high notes, faulted by a muscley and dry tone at the passaggio and below.  I feel kind of bad for never warming to him, but he failed to grab me somehow.  His acting is generic but he does manage to look impressively Jesus-like in Act 4 in a long white robe with his short beard and longish hair.  I think this was unintentional.  If it wasn’t, I have no idea what it was supposed to signify.

Act 3.  Several of the upper parts of this set were MIA last night.
Photo: Der Standard

Eva-Maria Westbroek has a fabulous soprano, lush and creamy and even right up to the top of the staff.  Above that it gets steelier, but not unpleasantly so (that is to say, her first two “malediziones” were better than the last one).  I would liked to have heard more rhythmic flexibility and Italianate phrasing from her, but Augiun was conducting like he would slow down for no woman or man, so I’m not going to say she couldn’t do it elsewhere.  She did some marvelous acting when onstage alone.  And as for her future role as Anna-Nicole Smith, well, if Anna-Nicole had had better taste she would have wished she could look that good in a pantsuit.

Zeljko Lucic has plenty of volume for Don Carlos and sang his aria with real beauty and musicality, but he seems too fundamentally decent and his voice too lyrically gentle for a villain who kills his own sister.  I would love to hear him as Boccanegra, but am not convinced of his Verdi-villain status.  Tomasz Konieczny, as Melitone, had a metallic edge to his voice that made me think he would have been more suitable, if less opulent.  Ferruccio Furlanetto is not the type to be confined to near-last in a cast list and I’m rather surprised to see him singing such a small role as Padre Guardiano.  It was lovely, and his duet with Westbroek had, along with Lucic’s aria, the best singing of the night, but, still.  It’s minor.  Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla had the misfortune to get totally lost in Auguin’s manical tempo for the Rataplan, but otherwise didn’t sound bad and, hey, she can do both a split and a backbend.

Finally, a Great Moment in Opera Titles: “The bullet in his chest worries me.”  (“La palla che ha nel petto mi spaventa.”)  (Even in Italian it is somewhat dry, but “mi spaventa” is more properly “scares me.”)

Bows, another lousy in-house photo from me:

Next: The Semele prima is tomorrow but I need a break and think I’ll go on Friday.

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  1. Oh, I was hoping you'd review this; I was really intrigued by the cast! Sorry to hear of a disappointing staging. I was thinking that a Western could be interesting, but overt symbolism and sexy dancers (?!?) sound unfortunate. (I'm pretty sure Fabio Armiliato has Jesus-hair all the time, although I'm not sure that sheds any light on the intentional symbolism question.) I saw Zeljko Lucic as Simon Boccanegra in Frankfurt in '07, and loved him to bits in the role.

    Also, your War & Peace analogy gave me an "aha!" moment. 🙂 Really Shameful Confession: I have always struggled with the chaos of Forza. Recent renewal of addiction to the overture, the libretto, and "Solenne in quest'ora" had me thinking I should grit my teeth and try again; now I can do it without gritting!

  2. Considering the prevalence of crosses in this entire show, I was just waiting for Armiliato to stick his arms out, but he never did. He probably has to be more careful about that than most people.

    I don't think there is any shame in finding Forza confusing, I think it's supposed to be like that. The dancing cowboys of this production seemed like such a non sequitur, because otherwise there were no signs of a Western. And all they did was come on and dance, like a revue number, I guess there's a lot of non sequitur-ness in this plot, but you gotta do something to make hold it together.

    More pictures of this tackiness:

    I'm glad to hear Lucic is a good Boccanegra, it was just a guess on my part. We're getting old Nucci later this season here.

  3. Hey Zerbinetta,

    Pedantic? Leo?! Pshaw. I mean, who wouldn't want to read the odd paragraph (or … you know …20) about "movements of peoples" and "historical forces" and stuff like that there. Indeed, as you'll recall he's constantly railing about the pedantic "Germans" (e.g. Clausewitz – somewhat unfairly*).

    In any case, very interesting review. The narrative confusion aside Forza does have some good tunes and based on my one experience one can take more of Westbroek than of the above paragraphs. The one time I heard her, however, I didn't find her highs at all hard, indeed even rather blooming, even if there was a bit of a register break.

    That applies a fortiori for Furlanetto and at this stage in his career we should be grateful for any opportunity to hear him (can't wait for the Met Don Carlo and Boccanegra). Greatest Figaro (ever???) of the last 30 years at least. A particularly great run at the Met in winter 2002, just about exactly contemporaneous with Trebs debut in … you guessed it … War and Peace. (Ok, but to me at least more of a drop of from the novel than say a Don Carlo or Otello, I think).

    Anyway. Glad to read your taking full advantage of the Viennese musical scene. Enjoy the Semele.

    *Clausewitz himself is always on the warpath, if you will, against "pedants" and compilers of "systems and compendia" and indeed criticizes some of the same dispositions Tolstoy takes issue with in W&P. (He does disagree with him on the Great Man thing with his focus on "Genius". (W&P is my favorite novel too but the "historical analysis" sections, especially at the end are rather tedious, I think).

  4. Maybe pedantic was too strong a word ("beard-tugging"?), but 20 paragraphs? It's a lot more than that. Granted, in a book that long it's not proportionately large but the lecturing really changes the pace of events in the last third of the book.

    Agree with you about Furlanetto, but in trying to write something of reasonable length I did not consider a full appreciation of a well-known quantity to be my first priority. And I'm begeistert with Westbroek, this just didn't seem like anyone's best night.

  5. I feel a bit sorry for Eva-Maria. The second production in a row now she's in (after Elektra at Salzburg) that seems to be far from remarkable… She recently said she likes to see opera as a 'Gesamtkunstwerk', a joint effort of all participants to make something memorable. So it should be a bit frustrating for her to see some participants making such a mess out of it. I do not really believe, however, that her singing would suffer from this. So "this just doesn't seem like anyone's best night" sounds a bit ??? Very nice review, by the way.

  6. Rob V: As nice as that kind of gesamtkunstwerk is, it is not a specialty of the Wiener Staatsoper, a house with a repertoire of 50 operas and minimal rehearsals. Sometimes everything kind of clicks, but except for new productions it's not because of lots of planning. It's really a crap shoot every night.

    And I suppose "You're so good! I wish I could have seen you in something better!" isn't anyone's favorite kind of positive review either.

  7. I see what you mean, Zerbinetta. Thanks for your comment. Nevertheless, in Holland we have this saying, somewhat curious I must admit: "Gooi het kind niet weg met het badwater". Translated: "You shouldn't throw away the child with the bathing-water". Meaning, even if something seems to be overwhelmingly crap, you should still try to pick out and cherish the precious. Generally, I take it to be a wise statement.

  8. In English it's almost the same, "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." Rest assured that no infants are being discarded here. I hope for her sake and for my own as a Met fan that the new Met Walküre is a giant super-collaborative success (and that no one is injured by the set). And I'm hoping Ryainair has a 5 Euro flight to London so I can see "Anna Nicole," because I love that kind of crazy stuff.