forza top

Luis Cansino as Don Carlos Di Vargas and Justyna Gringyté as Preziosilla.

Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith 

La Forza del Destino

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


If there are problems with La Forza del Destino, they begin not with the production, not with the solo vocalists, certainly not with the orchestra; but with Verdi himself, and with the most talented of his middle period librettists, Francesco Maria Piave.

Verdi himself conceded that this opera was, in several senses, the launch of a new period for him. Musically, it is inventive, embraces new ways of handling motifs and creating novel structures; and these are matched by a not so much complex as elusive plot, culled from more than one source, interspersed by embattled, rumbustious and marching choruses, and a central love– hate threesome that builds its characters only modestly.

Let’s concentrate on the pluses. Mary Elizabeth Williams sings the heroine, Donna Leonora, whose father (the splendid Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén) is unwittingly shot and killed by her lover, Don Alvaro, of whom the father anyway disapproved.

Her voice is a treasure: wonderfully strong yet warm and mellow, a sort of ochre colour, but also truly exciting in high register.

Next there’s Leonora’s brother. Believing his father’s death to be not a mishap but a deliberate assassination, one in which his sister may even have connived, he makes it his duty to seek out the killer and dispose of him, by duel. The Spanish baritone Luis Cansino, seemingly a newcomer to WNO, is a real find. True, he finds himself clad in a military uniform, cutting a somewhat awkward figure. But his singing was riveting: polished, expressive, strong but never unduly overpowering. His first aria was miraculous: pure enchantment.

Sebestyén, doubling as the Father Superior (Padre Guardiano) was sympathetic and sensitive, the voice matching the character beguilingly, and his duet with Leonora quite magical and moving. Donald Maxwell carried off the mainly comic role of Fr Melitone, amply fed and not averse to drink, with a performance full of his usual aplomb. As Don Alvaro the tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, another somewhat well fed, larger than life character, sang fervently, and effectively, if perhaps slightly short of alluring vocal colour.

Donna and father

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Donna Leonora and Miklós Sebestyén  as II Marchese di Calatrava.

But the other voice to cherish was the Lithuanian mezzo and former Jette Parker Young Artist Justyna Gringytė. First in the minor role of the maid Curra, in which the voice already shone through. And then, whatever trivial postures she was required to go through, as the bewitching Preziosilla, a kind of eminence grise whose antics lure men to war and whose presence, benign or malign, seemed to hover over events like a sinister master of ceremonies, but the voice was fluent, lucid, and seemed often to want to break, brilliantly, into the champagne aria of Die Fledermaus.

What was it that diminished the impact of this staging? First, the pretty static Act I, ponderous, plodding, uninviting. Then the set (Raimund Bauer), a series of vast blocks cleverly swung by backstage staff but frankly adding nothing. If the alterations made for variety, they still, in the main, amounted to little. Then there was the long table brought out for the first chorus scene: Preziosilla, periodically in ridiculous sluttery black costume though not her, cavorted along it, but the feel was one of cliché, a word that came to mind in much of the direction, and, frankly, libretto.

David Pountney, who achieved such marvels with Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, every move relevant, every detail adding its own poignancy, seemed to have drawn a blank here. In the so-called battle scenes, the chorus cavorts around, repeatedly, in snaky lines as if queuing for an Easyjet flight. All a bit lumpen. Later the military don silly Inquisition-like headgear, and elsewhere goggles; and wave their fists, most of which looks pretty stupid. It contributes nothing. We are treated to a (well-managed) puppet show. Let it be said, however, that the male chorus voices especially were first–rate. Indeed, the potency of the tenor voices alone drew one’s deep admiration

Those who save many of the scenes, bringing focus, are Lighting Designer Fabrice Kebour, and his aide Ian Jones who oversaw the lighting here.

But we look to the vocals – and the orchestra - to lend all this much sense. Leonora’s short aria ‘Do not abandon me, I pray’ – wonderful. The above-mentioned duet with Father Guardiano., the second half even more touching than the first. Her later solo ‘May I be protected by God’, with a single harp nourishing Williams’ lovely, poignant voice. Or her lament, ‘I cannot forget him’ near the close: superb.

Having Carlo Rizzi in the pit has (since 1992) contributed so much to WNO productions over the years. Quite apart from the precision and attention of the massed desks, one was treated, right from the outset, to some outstanding solos: cello for ‘Sweet homeland, I leave you with tears’; flute, or paired flutes; an outstanding, mellow clarinet solo midway. Expressive harp on more than one occasion; effective touches from double bass or basses. At times beautifully poised, cavorting woodwind; and some outstanding strings at numerous points.

I wouldn’t give much for the story, or the staging. But WNO always comes up trumps in some way, if not most ways. Hurrah for the soloists, and their music. Frankly, they saved the day.

Roderic Dunnett



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