If you need a hefty dose of drama, don’t watch soap opera but go instead to the opera. Its machinery will transform you into an emotive creature that weeps, laughs, trembles and gasps. Your mind will be spinning excitedly trying to follow complex tales of love. Your senses will be bedazzled by flashy sets, over the top costumes, orchestral splashes, loud voices and grand gestures. Nothing is on a small scale in an opera performance, especially in Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino.
The Force of Destiny is a dark tale of love and honour, indecision and revenge, disastrous moments and missed chances. The opera comes to life through a collaborative effort between national opera companies, the vision of a talented creative team and the State Opera of South Australia. The title proclaims that the central theme is destiny itself and surely fate has its own musical reference – the repetition of a three-minim unison motif.
In this Spanish saga of destruction, death prowls at each turn and fate is inevitable. This is perhaps not surprising. For one, the creation of La forza del destino reflects the turmoil in the composer’s own life; coming to terms with the loss of his two children and wife amongst other. Another reason is that the opera was performed far away from the laurels and quarrels as well as from the watchful Catholic Church of Verdi’s native Italy in mysterious Russia, where suffering, fate and death are professed as certainties in life. Premiered at St Petersburg’s Imperial Theatre in 1862, the opera finished with three horrendous deaths of the principal characters. For the premiere in Milan seven years later, Verdi created the famous overture and was forced to switch the ending from total nihilism to pious repentance.
The scandalous finale is the one that we get in Australia in the twenty first century along with heavy-duty visual metaphors of death, symbols of Christian sacrifice and suffering, set amongst luscious blue and red backdrops and adorned with period-inspired costumes by Mark Thompson. Director Tama Matheson delivers a striking reading of the drama and the score, escalating the character of the gypsy Preziosilla (Milijana Nikolic) into an embodiment of destiny. Her presence throughout the opera elucidates the turns and twists in the plot and creates a detail for the eyes to feast on during long and what could be boring duets. Particularly effective is her mute appearance during the overture where she manipulates the characters like puppets by the means of her tarot cards.
La forza del destino is known for being extremely challenging and even cursed; vocal prowess is a must. A shining timbre, refined phrasing and impeccable Italian were the potent weapons of Rosario La Spina, who sang the role of the lover, Don Alvaro, with zest, courage and tenderness. The prelude with a magnificent clarinet solo, recitative and aria at the beginning of the third act were exquisite and received an enthusiastic ovation.
Another performance that stood out was John Bolton Wood’s energetic portrayal of Fre Mellitone – a character that provides comic relief within the gloomy narrative. His voice is sparkly, including a brilliant top, while his acting is believable and engaging.
Drama was in the making on this opening night when due to indisposition Nicole Youl (Leonora) had to be replaced, while her husband, Michael Lewis, pressed on performing the taxing role of Don Carlo with fervour. Youl’s voice is velvety in timbre, now possessing rich low notes and control of soft singing in the upper passaggio. Lecia Robertson took on in the second half and had to venture into Leonora’s famous aria from Act IV head-on. She warmed up quickly and sang well the finale. Leonora’s death was very touching and softened the hearts of the spectators.
The rest of the Australian cast included performers who all did fine jobs of their roles. Kate Bright was Leonora’s servant Curra. Steven Gallop (Marquis of Calatrava) revealed the protective side of a caring father and Jeremy Tatchell was convincing as the surgeon who tends to the wounded Alvaro. Bernard Hull (Maestro Trabuco) showed unexpected excellent period posture and movement that suited the costume he was wearing. The young Pelham Andrews was given the important role of Padre Guardiano. Andrews showed much potential with an attractive and sonorous bass baritone. More effort and stage experience will improve his awareness of Verdian phrasing and understanding of a role that is not easy to grasp.
The mass scenes were the most appealing. Italian conductor Andrea Licata drew an opulent Verdian sound from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the singers. The only drawback for the singers and audience were orchestral sforzandos that often muffled the onset of high tones.
The real diva in this performance was the capable State Opera Chorus under the leadership of Timothy Sexton. They are a group of dedicated professional singers that always impress with their sound, look and acting. In this production it was the expression of devoutness and soft dynamics that they displayed to perfection.
The ending of this new production is no less spectacular. After the death of Leonora and Don Carlo, Alvaro kills himself. He pierces the body of the crucified Christ and blood spills on the monstrous skull below as Alvaro takes his last breath and the chorus comments in dismay.
The new production overwhelms with its lurid sets, elaborate costumes and a clever directorial concept, but this is only a beautiful shell. What achieves emotive connection with the audience is the precious pearl of inspired and well-crafted music. It is heartening to feel the strong culture of philanthropy in this organisation with a long tradition of funding through the SA Opera Friends that nurtures this expensive music genre.
State Opera South Australia presents
La forza del destino
Director Tama Matheson
Venue: Festival Theatre | King William Road, Adelaide SA
Dates: 12, 15, 17, 19 October 2013
Tickets: $180.00 – $45.00
Bookings: BASS 131 246
Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia