La Forza del Destino
Welsh National Opera, Cardiff and touring until April 21
Producer: Welsh National Opera and Theater Bonn
Cast includes: Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Luis Cansino, Miklos Sebestyen, Justina Gringyte, Donald Maxwell, Wyn Pencarreg, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Julian Boyce
Director: David Pountney
Running time: approximately three hours, including interval
La Forza del Destino was first performed in 1862. Not satisfied, Verdi carried on revising it for years, adding in 1869 the famous sinfonia overture that announces so many of the work’s overwhelming musical themes.
The Welsh National Opera’s new version, directed by David Pountney, is based on a critical reassessment and settles on a combination in line, the programme tells us, with the “endless self-questioning” and complex creative process that informed Verdi’s work.
This does not pretend to be the definitive production because there isn’t one. Instead, it allows us to appreciate the work’s ambition, massive scale and difficulty.
The absurdities of the plot become something we tolerate as the vehicle to explore our relationship with destiny and the enormous strength of character required to defy it.
Above all, it is the inspiration for the richest of music, conducted with flair by Carlo Rizzi, and visually articulated by Raimund Bauer’s stark design that projects images of a giant revolver spinning like the wheel of fate and a massive bullet soaring through the air.
Against the clinical white of a set that evokes the austerity of the monastery and the bleak, bullet-ridden face of war, a bleeding wound reminds us of the ongoing vendetta.
As the sinfonia begins, the most flamboyant and agile of the performers Justina Gringyte as Preziosilla, cast as fortune, makes her first appearance, banging her staff on the stage while the music delivers the blows of fate. She is then a recurrent presence, alternating between an emcee and a fortune teller with an undercurrent of the grim reaper and the witch, as she cavorts with glee on the gun turret of a tank.
In a production in which the parallels between the wider war of the Austrian Succession and the personal feud are writ large, she goads a mighty chorus of troops into battle just as she heartlessly nudges the protagonists towards their fatal choices.
In Verdi’s ultimate version, as well as in this one, the too-bleak possibility of eternal perdition following Alvaro’s suicide is scrapped in favour of a redemption that amounts to his triumph over destiny, but the effort required is superhuman and the cost devastating.
Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro gives it his mellifluous all in a struggle that reaches its climax in passionate, rousing tenor-baritone duets with his nemesis Leonora’s brother Don Carlo (Luis Cansino).
For a leading lady, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora has a lonely time, singing solo in a voice with great nuance, as able to convey an outcry as a whisper as she bids her earthly fate adieu.
The problem for a modern audience, which this sprawling production can do little to address, is that in a post-religious society there is very little that can outwit the destiny of death – with the possible exception of art.
Barbara Lewis © 2018.