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Friday, October 25, 2013

Opera Review: Destination: Nowhere

Washington National Opera takes on La Forza del Destino.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She wants YOU: Preziosilla (Ketevan Kemoklidze) summons the troops in La Forza del Destino.
Photo by Scott Suchman © 2013 Washington National Opera/The Kennedy Center.
It is a bold stroke for new Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello to tackle Giuseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino in a new production for the composer's bicentennial year. Forza is Verdi's great theatrical experiment, crossing a Spanish revenge tragedy with the sprawling worldview of a Schiller play. The sprawling plot gleefully demands abandonment of Aristotelian unities (and even logic) to tell a story that amounts to an interconnected series of unfortunate events. It is also the opera world's equivalent of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Whispered backstage stories tell of ill fortune--even death--befalling those who dare to sing its three leading roles.

On Thursday night, Forza did not start with its famous Overture, but with the prefatory action of Act I. (Moving the Overture to follow the opening act was a longtime practice at the old Metropolitan Opera.) That device allows Ms. Zambello more leeway to explore the early relationship between Don Alvaro, Donna Leonora di Vargas and her devoted brother Carlo, whose bully-boy behavior is exceeded only by his later thirst for violent revenge. The Overture itself, led by new WNO conductor Xian Zhang was competent enough but lacked grandeur and sweep in its big moments--and it worked well with the added onstage action.

In this, their final performance of this run, the "first" cast have settled into their roles. Tenor Giancarlo Monsalve was not an ideal Don Alvaro. He threw himself over the precarious leap between his lower baritonal range into the necessary upper register creating the despair of a hunted man with occasional flashes of heroic grandeur. After a rough opening act, he hit his groove in the battlefield scene, portraying the character as bold and noble--but hot-headed and ultimately doomed. Mr. Monsalve's tone sweetened in the second half of the opera, singing with less effort but giving greater pleasure for it.

"La Vita E Inferno All'Infelice" was staged as the aftermath of a dream, complete with a ghostly visit from a phantom Leonora. This served to remind the audience of the tight connection between these characters--especially when they haven't been seen together since before the Overture. The big battlefield duets with Don Carlo (played by Mark Delevan) were highlights, as were the scenes in Act IV where Alvaro decides to start over (as a priest with an assumed identity) only to be interrupted by the knife-swinging Carlo. These final duets were magnificent, framing the last tragedy of the opera--Leonora's murder--and lending real dramatic weight to these chaotic events.

As Leonora, Adina Aaron displayed an impressive lower register in the early acts, but that precious upper spinto range eluded her in the opera's first scene. She sounded more comfortable riding the plush wave of choral sound in the Act II pilgrim's chorus. The voice unpacked itself at last in the crucial Act II monologue that climaxes with the great aria "Madre, pietosa vergine," continuing its upward arc in the following church scene. Here, it was delivered in front of a wall that might have been visited by graffiti artist Banksy. Ms. Aaron was better in the last act, singing a lush, sweet-toned "Pace, mio Dio" which seemed to fade into nothingness.

Burly, dark-voiced and occasionally terrifying, Mark Delevan remains an ideal choice for Carlo. His Act II narrative ("Son Pereda, son ricco d'onore)" was played with a twist. Carlo's tissue of lies (he claims to be a grad student from Salamanca) fails to impress and he's chased out of the Hornachuelos bar by an angry group of pistol-packing thugs. Age has put some wool on the voice, but the singer can still make "Morir, un tremenda cosa" a deep insight into this tormented, obsessive character. His betrayal of Alvaro and series of confrontations built up the last act's momentum. Time after time, Mr. Delevan looked to be on the brink of forgiveness only to pull back into madness--making Carlo a figure to be pitied.

Forza's comic bite (and much of its appeal) comes from the motley crew of supporting characters. Ketevan Kemoklidze played the gypsy Presiozilla as a machine gun-toting Lady Gaga, leading a line of go-go backup dancers in a sexy "Rataplan." Valeriano Lanchas was a suitable Fra Melitone. His callous treatment of the poor and oppressed struck a chord with this Washington audience. Enrico Iori was a rock-solid Padre Guardiano, at his best in supporting Leonora. As the Alcade (Mayor) of Hornachuelos, Soloman Howard displayed a fine bass voice and a pimp-daddy attitude doing business on the battlefield. Baritone Christian Bowers had only one line as the Army Surgeon, but got the biggest laugh of the night. The choral singing was strong and appropriately devout.

Ms. Zambello has updated the the battle scenes to reflect the chaos of guerrilla warfar in some deliberately non-specific country. The characters are in modern military dress (costumes are by Catherine Zuber) fighting with automatic weapons in a forest of shipping containers that might as well be in New Jersey. (I couldn't help but think of the vast plain in the Meadowlands where the Met stores its vast collection of opera sets.) This vague locale (decked with gaudy Miss Saigon neon for the tavern scene and later recycled as the monastery in Act II) adds to the sense of disconnect for the audience--are we watching an historic battle or the breakdown of civilized society?
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.