WASHINGTON, October 13, 2013 – To mount a successful opera season these days, it’s an absolute necessity to program at least a couple of guaranteed moneymakers to pick up the ticket slack that’s encountered when programming riskier operatic entrées. That’s almost certainly why the Washington National Opera is bulking out its 2013-2014 spring stanza with two old standbys: Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love,” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” the latter of which we’ll get back to in a bit.
This pair of longtime opera faves, plus this season’s fall opener, WNO’s fine production of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” will likely support the chances the company is taking by scheduling Jack Heggie’s nearly new opera, “Moby Dick”—starring local-boy-made-good, tenor Carl Tanner, as the vengeful Captain Ahab—to open its spring stanza; and by programming Giuseppe Verdi’s not-often-heard “Force of Destiny” (“La forza del destino”) this month to wrap up its regular fall performance schedule. (But note: other new ventures are also on tap.)
WNO’s “Destiny,” is a brand-new WNO production that opened in the Kennedy Center Opera House this Saturday past. It’s in many respects, the first opportunity for the company’s nearly-new artistic director, Francesca Zambello, to firmly place her mark on WNO’s evolving, American-centric direction.
A different kind of Verdi opera that shows the composer in transition
The current production is exciting, fast-paced, and visually spectacular, boasting a good deal of fine singing as well, all of which is considerably buoyed by the WNO’s passionate accompaniment under the baton of conductor Xian Zhang in her debut appearance with the company.
On the other hand, the current production also underscores some possible reasons why we don’t encounter it too often on stage.
- First and foremost, this opera’s vocal demands are considerable, at times on a par with Wagnerian requirements, making it tough for many singers to mount a sustained effort throughout.
- Complicating matters further, this opera’s structure and content are always open to question for each musical or artistic director who chooses to take it on. Never quite satisfied with it, the composer fussed with this work again and again, leaving behind a trail of competing variants, in some respects along the same lines of Offenbach’s forever-controversial “Tales of Hoffmann.”
- Finally, the actual opera itself—in whatever form one encounters it—is not far removed from the original, earlier melodrama that inspired it, making for occasional gaping holes in the plot. More problematic are a few bizarre confrontation scenes that, while they may have thrilled a 19th century audience, can and do evoke guffaws in the 21st.
From a purely musical standpoint, however, this transitional Verdi opera—which simultaneously brings to an end his earlier more lyrical periods while signaling the composer’s embrace of a more contemporary, verismo evolution—is chock full of romantic lyricism and ultra-dramatic vocal excursions that are worthy of more than the token performances it generally gets in this country.
In fact, the scarcity of this music on performance calendars—with the exception of its stirring overture, still much favored as an opener on symphony programs—makes one wonder at least a bit why Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” another opera with the most ridiculous of plots, remains an all-time hit in opera houses even as “Destiny” tends to languish.
Jimmy Carter once opined that life itself is unfair. Perhaps that’s the only real answer when confronting this kind of musical dilemma.
But in the main, we have to conclude that WNO’s current production of “Destiny” is a welcome re-introduction of a fine, tragic, Verdi opera, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to “Aïda.” Moreover, “Destiny’s” obvious flaws, more of which are attributable to the underlying stage vehicle than to WNO’s production, should not deter area audiences from seeking out and experiencing this opera’s considerable charm and excitement.
The new WNO production
As far as WNO’s current production is concerned, let’s open the discussion by commenting on its visual substance and style as well as its structural elements.
First, it’s clear that Francesca Zambello, who also directs this production, knew she had to do some tinkering to give this opera a bit more verisimilitude at least. Of several versions of the opera available to her, she first chose the version that’s likely the shortest, effectively quickening the pace and eliminating sideshows while also allowing the opera’s flawed hero, Don Alvaro, a chance to survive through the final curtain—an opportunity afforded him neither in the original 1835 play nor Verdi’s first version of “Destiny.”
Second, Ms. Zambello altered the structure of the opera a bit more, turning its key opening scene, in which a murder and a curse set the rest of the plot in motion, by making it a “prologue,” followed, not preceded, by the opera’s famously stirring overture. This ordering is not without precedent. But it does serve to provide a bridge between the generation of the characters’ “destiny” and the rest of the show where that destiny plays out. It also permits a pantomime on stage which, visually at least, helps us perceive the passage of time.
While the “prologue” of this production occurs in a sumptuous upper class dining room, much of its remainder is spent in various quadrants of a decaying, modernistic landscape. For indeed, the third key element of this production is its re-imagined transport to our own times as opposed to its traditional mid-19th century setting. This was a time when much of the known world was in political turmoil including today’s country of Italy, then in its fractious, revolutionary infancy.
Oh, wait a minute. Things haven’t changed very much today, have they? Nations are still falling apart and re-forming. And, whether in international or intra-national conflicts, each side in a conflict utterly and irrationally hates the other, making mediation impossible—ironically underscored by the current political asininity in our own capital city.
All of which makes WNO’s update—the sort of thing this critic normally doesn’t favor—eminently sensible here. When you have an opera that’s hampered by a wobbly plot, relating it to contemporary times at least clears out some of the detritus from times past.
Some things that were incongruous in the original are still incongruous today—notably the exchanges between our habitually noble but inconsistent hero, Don Alvaro and his sworn enemy, Don Carlo. As in: “I’ll kill you. Well, no I won’t. I promised God never to do violence. But wait. I hate you. I’ll kill you.” Etc. This is all very authentically melodramatic. But when essentially the same quibble happens in confrontation after confrontation, the audience can’t help chuckling.
WNO’s update, however, gives us enough visual and character interest that it tends to hustle us past this silliness. For the most part.
Likewise this opera’s showiest scene, which occurs on bustling city streets in Verdi’s original. It’s the antithesis of the happy Paris street scene in Puccini’s later “La Bohème,” conveying instead a surlier, more threatening street. Murderers and drunken no-goods prowl “Destiny’s” streets and sinister alleyways. Not-too-veiled allusions to an impending civil war are bandied about. The mood grows nastier. And then, and then…an entourage of chanting monks shows up and everybody drops both drinks and pliant wenches in order to pray along with them.
Yes, this is incongruous, too. But this production distracts us with Peter J. Davison’s spectacular, neon-illuminated, red-light district jungle with its bustling all-night Chinese restaurant and bar to the audience right, surmounted by a gigantic, green neon dragon. To the left, we see vertically stacked ocean transport containers, indicating we’re near the edge of a decaying but still busy port.
The whole set-up immediately reminded us of the blue, neon bar scene that was part of Polish director Mariusz Trelinski’s WNO production of “Bohème” here a few seasons back. It also called to mind Zeffirelli’s over-the-top “Pagliacci,” also staged by WNO in 1997.
So visually stunning is neon jungle in the current production of “Destiny,” so amoral and rowdy are its thieves, murderers and voluptuous pole-dancers, that we’re mostly distracted from “Destiny’s” unintentionally comic elements.
The remainder of the opera is staged inside and outside the corrugated walls of a monastic Christian Rescue Mission and in the bombed out fields of war, complete with some pretty effective bombs blasting away in the near distance. There’s a lot for both the ear and the eye to dwell on here. And that’s a good thing as the music keeps us moving along.
In short, the visual and visceral immediacy of this production distracts from the weak plot, while its contemporary look and feel brings the immediacy of its disparate moral element closer to home.
The only thing we found rather tiresome in this operatic reconceptualization was the pointedly Abu Ghraib-style black-hooded torture pantomime materializing during the primary battle scenario that opens this production’s second half. Although such allegedly satirical tics like this one still seem to gladden the hearts of performing arts ensembles everywhere, this kind of cheap U.S. demonization has grown predictable, stale and tedious. Perhaps future productions will call attention to ongoing Iranian and Syrian atrocities.
“The Force of Destiny”: Opening night
Although WNO’s opening cast did not always dazzle us with brilliance on opening night, they actually did a better than decent job singing extraordinarily difficult roles, creating generally believable characters in spite of their melodramatic origins.
Adina Aaron, who sang the key role of Donna Leonora, this opera’s conflicted tragic heroine, began the evening somewhat tentatively but gained confidence as the opera gained momentum.
Leonora’s external and internal lives are both a tangled mess as she watches as her ill-fated fiancée first accidentally kills her father and then later kills her vengeful brother as well, even though that brother intends to knock her off, too. (Again, another unpleasantly contemporary theme in this opera still present in at least part of today’s world: honor killing.)
All this trouble gives our soprano an amazing variety of opportunities to vocally express a variety of feelings and moods, and Ms. Aaron, after her tentative start, grew into the immediacy of it all, with strengthening conviction and vocal resolve following close behind.
She achieved her very best moments during the lengthy scene in which she convinces the monastery’s spiritual leader, Father Guardiano (bass Enrico Iori) to admit her where she will forever withdraw from public life. Her voice seemed to bloom from this point on, taking on a radiance that she sustained until her final scene.
Additionally, as a singer-actress, she showed a lot of spunk in the finale. As Ms. Aaron’s Leonora tried desperately to sort out Don Alvaro’s latest murderous escapade, she slipped on a discarded walking stick/cudgel and went down hard on stage. The audience gasped in unison. That had to hurt (and probably still does). But Ms. Aaron popped right back up to launch into her next vocal line singing radiantly without skipping a beat. Hats off for bravely going on with the show.
WNO’s cast for “Destiny,” Ms. Aaron aside, proved a mixed bag at least on opening night. Tenor Giancarlo Monsalve’s Alvaro and baritone Mark Delavan’s Don Carlo embodied alpha male manliness and enmity with snarling efficiency, despite Alvaro’s occasional sallies into zen-like moments of Christian tranquility. But both singers also created an impression they were simply trying too hard.
Mr. Delavan’s voice at times sounded harsh and brittle, although arguably, that might have been part of his characterization of the irrationally implacable and entirely dislikable Carlo.
For his part, Mr. Monsalve displayed a smooth, flexible tenor range, capable of achieving significant volume against the orchestra’s romantic surges. And yet his almost heldentenor volume seemed to come at a price, sounding forced and somewhat strange even as his diction remained superb and as he accurately hit each top note.
Perhaps both singers (and the orchestra) will even things out a bit in successive performances.
In smaller roles, many singers were good while some were excellent. Mezzo Ketevan Kemoklidze’s feisty agitator, Preziosilla came across quite sharply in her first appearance. But she seemed a bit distracted by all the noise and stage action throughout her later martial solo, “Rataplan.”
Although the role (in this production at least) of street boss Alcade is a small one, bass Soloman Howard—a current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist—and his booming, richly authoritative voice were most impressive. We’ve seen him in other productions here as well.
Mr. Howard already reminds us of one of the Met’s current favorite basses, Eric Owens, whom we first chanced to see many years ago when he was a fledgling artist at the Wolf Trap Opera. Mr. Owens even then had an aura of impending greatness about him. We sense the same magic in Mr. Howard.
In the semi-buffo role of Brother Melitone, bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas added not only vocal humor but physical comedy to his role, providing delightful touches of comic relief to an opera that is almost unrelievedly tragic.
Better yet was Melitone’s boss, bass Enrico Iori in the more serious role of Father Guardino. He’s also the savior—until fate intervenes—of the desperate Leonora. Mr. Iori, in a standout performance, brilliantly portrayed this holy yet also earthly man with a rich, confident voice that radiated firmness and authority while encompassing an otherworldly compassion.
The WNO orchestra, playing for the first time under the baton of lively conductor Xian Zhang, performed crisply and well. Our only complaint was that the orchestra’s enthusiasm and brilliance on occasion, washed over the singers—very possibly one reason for the strain we detected in Mr. Monsalve’s voice.
For their part, the constantly-in-motion WNO chorus also sounded good and rarely fell out of synch with either the soloists or the orchestra.
WNO’s brand new version of “The Force of Destiny” proved, on opening night, to be an uneven but generally exciting musical adventure, reviving an infrequently heard opera and its wonderful and often brilliant music in a way that generally overcame the work’s known structural defects.
Peter J. Davidson’s spectacular and original sets and Francesca Zambello’s deft direction make the production an unexpected—and sometimes in your face—visual statement as well. The opera’s major soloists, while obviously wrestling with their difficult parts at times, largely met Verdi’s musical challenges while also creating characters that were largely human and believable, even within the somewhat antiquated traditions of 19th century melodrama.
We like seeing productions of operas we’ve either rarely or never seen like this one. Granted, WNO’s “Force of Destiny” is not without issues. But the entire team tackles them bravely and well, making this a production that likely will prove rewarding for all but the pickiest of traditionalists.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)
Production note: As is often the case with WNO, a second cast of principals will appear in a few performances of “Destiny.” Amber Wagner, Rafael Davila and Luca Salsi will step into the roles of Leonora, Alvaro, and Carlo respectively for the October 18 and 22 performances. Mr. Salsi will return for the October 26 performance while Ms. Aaron and Mr. Delavan will return to their roles on that date.
Performances of Verdi’s “Force of Destiny” (“La forza del destino”) continue at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through October 26, 2013. For tickets and information, visit the production’s WNO page. Or call the ticket office at 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.
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