The Force of Destiny, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2015Posted on 10 November 2015
The unusually abstract title of this mature yet seldom-performed Verdi opera could be rephrased as ‘the force of anger’. The Marquis of Calatrava’s ferocity at his daughter Leonora’s choice of husband leads to his accidental death, and his son Don Carlo’s furiously determined revenge leads to his own death and that of his sister.
“Vengeance is mine”, saith the Lord, but that lesson is lost on the Calatrava family, and the noble Don Alvaro is left alone at the end, having lost his beloved Leonora and the angry men to whom he tried so hard to make amends. It’s a bloody mess, well illuminated in Calixto Bieito’s new production where this quintessentially Spanish story is set entirely in Spain, and the concomitant eighteenth century War of the Austrian Succession becomes the twentieth century Spanish Civil War. This is where Alvaro and Carlo, fighting on the same side under assumed names, encounter one another for the first time, their undying friendship later destroyed by Carlo’s relentless anger after he discovers his friend’s true identity.
It’s a hell of a story yet an uneven opera, though very well presented in this co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and the use of the original 1862 prelude, rather than the overture for the 1869 revision, fits well with Bieito’s opening scene where father and daughter converse but do not look at one another. Yet rather oddly at the end she is not killed by her dying brother but commits suicide with a razor wire necklace given her earlier by the monks, presumably lest intruders threaten her honour. Verdi’s elements of light relief may not quite come off, but the dark power of the staging, enhanced by video images of war along with excellent chorus movement and placement of singers, provides a vehicle for some outstanding singing.
Gwyn Hughes Jones made an extraordinary Alvaro, a noble Verdian tenor with a wonderfully open-hearted voice and superb diction. As his nemesis Carlo, Anthony Michaels-Moore gave a fine account of this angry man, delighted that his new found ‘friend’ will recover and become his victim, while the production shows his seemingly solid stature turning to that of a hungry scoundrel. The versatile Andrew Shore made an excellent Fra Melitone, and American bass James Cresswell provided a hugely powerful vocal and stage presence as father superior Padre Guardiano. His duet with Leonora outside the monastery was a high point that could hardly be bettered by the finest opera houses in the world. As Leonora herself, American soprano Tamara Wilson, making her ENO and role debut was a vocal marvel with ample power to sing right over the excellent chorus and the ability to produce wonderful floating notes in her gentle phrasing.
Fine musical power and sensitivity under the baton of Music Director Mark Wigglesworth, and with Jeremy Sams’ marvellous translation and some excellent diction this is a performance to be relished without need of surtitles. I look forward to hearing it again in the BBC Radio 3 broadcast on December 26.
Performances on stage continue on various dates until December 4 — for details click here.