The Washington National Opera is celebrating Verdi’s 200th birthday with a glitzy new production of the composer’s La Forza del Destino, conceived and directed by the company’s new artistic director, Francesca Zambello. On opening night, the first tip-off that this was going to be an unconventional production was the main curtain, which featured a giant pop art rendering of a gun, pointed at the audience. It turned out to be an apt symbol for the production’s edgy design and direction, which updates the opera to a decaying urban area in a modern city. Though imaginative, the setting and direction were often confusing, and at times seemed to be at war with the libretto and the music. These missteps, however, did not diminish the strong performances by many of the principal singers, or the powerful rendering of Verdi’s score from the WNO orchestra, under the direction of conductor Xian Zhang.
First and foremost, this opera is about two star-crossed young lovers -- the aristocratic Leonora and the handsome mulatto, Don Alvaro. They want to marry, but are thwarted by her imperious family. This production was cast with an eye towards making sure the principals were dramatically convincing. So the roles of Leonora and Don Alvaro went to young, attractive, up-and-coming singers: the beautiful African-American soprano Adina Aaron, and movie star handsome Chilean tenor, Giancarlo Monsalve. Not only did they look and act like young lovers, but they displayed the vocal mettle to handle Verdi’s demanding score.
Adina Aaron in particular has a huge, powerful voice and displayed an innate musicality, aided no doubt by the fact that she began her classical music training as a pianist. She was particularly effective in the famous aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” despite being asked to begin the aria off stage in a box car. Giancarlo Monsalve showed off the coaching he has received in Italy by opening up and knocking out treacherous high notes consistently, throughout the evening. His tone was not always refined or beautiful, but hopefully that will come with more experience.
Their zeal was matched by a fine performance from the orchestra, under the fiery baton of Xian Zang — one of the few women, and Asian-American, conductors in the business. She was the real force to be reckoned with in this production, whether driving home the three-note fate motif without a hint of brassiness or melodrama, or guiding the violins and harp to an ethereal conclusion in the final, hushed moments of the opera.
One of the strengths of this production is that the secondary roles are well cast and well sung. The pivotal role of the vengeful Carlo went to veteran baritone Mark Delavan. I last heard Delavan as Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring, so it was an interesting contrast to hear him in a verismo role. He obviously relished the part, especially the second act vengeance cabaletta, “Ah! egli e salvo.” Colombian base-baritone Valeriano Lanchas, who punched up the production with a genuine gift for comedy, was particularly noteworthy as Brother Melitone; and, Enrico Iori was a compassionate and convincing Father Guardiano. And what a treat to see base Soloman Howard, a member of the Washington Opera’s young artist program, take the small role of Alcade and turn it into a scene stealer. The WNO chorus also showed considerable skill, alternating between raucous choruses, marches and serene hymns.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the production’s sets and costumes, which were flashy and colorful, but added nothing to the story except confusion. They borrowed heavily from images common to numerous television series and science fiction films: graffiti-ridden corrugated warehouses and box cars, neon signs, mash units, soldiers dressed like GI-Joe action figures, hooded prisoners of war, inner city drug dealers, pimps in fur coats, pole dancing hookers, and white-robed religious zealots. These visual clichés, however, gave the production the look of a parody, rather than a tragedy. This contributed, no doubt, to the fact that the audience erupted into laughter during key dramatic moments in the performance I attended.
In addition, the dramatic flow was interrupted by the director’s decision to start the opera without its famous overture, which contains Verdi’s carefully plotted road map to the main musical motifs in this piece. Instead, the opera opens with a silent tableau (save for the clank of flatware): a formal dinner in the aristocratic home of the Marquis of Calatrava. The Marquis sits at the head of the table, gets up, and engages in some vague pantomime with the other men on stage. The maid keeps opening the window, son Carlo keeps closing it. Daughter Leonora, described over and over again as a paragon of purity in the libretto, sits at the table in a sexy, strapless red evening gown, drinking a lot of wine. Eventually, the Marquis and Leonora start singing, and Act 1 races to its tragic conclusion.
The director also made the curious choice to tweak the plot point that creates the central dilemma in this opera. In Verdi’s Forza, when the father discovers the two lovers together, Alvaro throws down his weapon to show he means no harm, but the gun accidentally goes off, killing the old man. Not in this production. When discovered, Alvaro first shoots a servant and then takes aim and shoots Leonora’s father. The shift from accidental death to murder is at odds with Verdi’s characterization of Alvaro and Leonora as essentially noble and blameless. Alvaro runs away and Carlo comes in, beats up the maid to find out what happened, and vows revenge on the lovers. Only then is the orchestra finally allowed to play the overture -- as background music for Leonora to disguise herself as a man, and climb out the window to follow her lover and flee her brother.
The incongruity continues as the scene shifts to a blighted inner city neighborhood featuring an Asian noodle bar and sex shop — visual knock offs right out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The crowd on stage is dressed as drug dealers, fur-clad pimps, hookers, gang members, and other assorted lowlife. An attempt at a visual pun is made by transforming the team of pack mules mentioned in the libretto to a comic band of human “mules,” who traffic in people and cheap merchandise. But the comic bits were so muddled that it was impossible to figure out what they were doing.
Preziosilla — now a hooker instead of a gypsy — mocks the soldiers by serenading them with songs extolling the “glories” of war. But which war? In this production, it’s left deliberately vague. The director has commented publicly that Verdi despised war. So perhaps she was trying to adopt an all-war-is-hell conceit to make the opera seem more relevant to contemporary audiences. But stripped of its original purpose in the libretto — which was to liberate Italy from Habsburg rule -- the war in this production seems pointless and silly, and so do the soldiers. Although there are a lot of funny lines in Francesco Piave’s libretto, I doubt this is what he was going for.
In addition to the shock value, the hooker chorus lines, pole dancers, TV-style mash units, and Toy Story soldiers made it difficult to take the opera seriously. No wonder the audience laughed during the confrontations between Alvaro and Carlo. This must have been disconcerting for the singers playing these two roles, as their scenes together include some of Verdi’s most beautiful tenor-baritone duets. Another example of visual disconnect was in the second scene of Act 1 (this production collapses Verdi’s four acts into two), when Leonora flees to an unnamed religious community for refuge. She sings about finally finding “peace” in this “holy place,” while standing in front of a graffiti-ridden corrugated warehouse, with a leather-clad motorcycle gang loitering to her left.
La Forza del Destino is an old-fashioned gothic melodrama. The story is admittedly clunky and requires a certain suspension of belief on the part of modern audiences. So staging it convincingly is tricky. This production went for edgy, modern realism. But injecting contemporary elements into a gothic-romantic plot made the story seem ridiculous, rather than gritty. Perhaps a more appropriate setting for a tragedy about mixed race lovers, vengeance, and family honor would have been the American South during the Civil War. At least this would have anchored the production in a time period the audience could understand.
Despite these drawbacks, I found the production a confirmation of Ms. Zambello’s reputation for spotting rising young talent and giving them a chance to shine. For me, their ardent performances, and the spirited rendition of Verdi’s score, made the evening worthwhile. (Audiences will get the chance to hear an alternate cast of principals on several upcoming dates.) In addition, this opera is infrequently performed in the United States. In fact, the program noted this is only the second time in its 56-year history that the Washington National Opera has presented La Forza del Destino. So while this production is not a perfect experience, it is one of the few opportunities to see this rarely performed Verdi masterpiece live on stage.
La Forza del Destino continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House, until October 26, 2013.
(Photo: Creative Commons. Bust of Giuseppe Verdi outside the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy; from photograph by Giorgio Castielli)