English National Opera flourishes at the London Coliseum that’s for sure and their latest production, Verdi’s tragic and powerful love story, The Force of Destiny (incidentally, last staged by the company in 1992), returns to St Martin’s Lane in a co-production with The Met, New York and Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.
The successful partnership with The Met over the past decade has produced a variety of spectacular, large-scale and critically-acclaimed productions such as Philip Glass’ Satyagraha and John Adams’ Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic. Therefore, The Force of Destiny is a worthy new arrival to the pack.
Verdi conceived the opera on a large scale while at the height of his creative powers following on from his big trio of successes: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. And the Quentin Tarantino of the opera world, 1960s Catalan-born theatre director, Calixto Bieito, conceived this production on a large scale, too, taking full advantage of the grand opportunities the opera afforded him while updating the setting from a domestic argument in an aristocratic household of 18th-century Spain to the broader canvas of infighting and hatred in the country, the unsettled period of the raging civil war of the 1930s between right-wing Nationalists and left-wing Republicans.
The production also afforded the set designer a broad canvas in which to let rip. And Rebecca Ringst did just that coming up with some amazing stuff, mostly dominated by a grand, ducal-type, war-torn palace. Admirably complemented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Ingo Krügler’s costumes, the overall stage picture was bleak and unattractive highlighting a country at unease with itself.
Sarah Derendinger’s detailed and unsettling monochromatic video images captured the rawness of the times, too, with a moving series of back-projected war-strewn images: soldiers striding forth, a semi-naked young girl, a detail of a charging horse, a jack-boot.
An excellent cast was brought together and Gwyn Hughes-Jones put his stamp of authority on the major role of Don Alvaro who accidentally killed his lover’s proud father, the Marquis of Calatrava, now beefed up as a Franco-type character regaled in military uniform, over an argument about his relationship with his daughter, Donna Leonora. The role was admirably performed at short notice by Robert Winslade-Anderson who replaced Matthew Best.
The role of Leonora fell to the American-born soprano, Tamara Wilson, making her ENO début and indeed, her role début. And what a début! She’s simply superb and fitted her part so well. Her acting and stage presence was just the ticket while the quality of her voice cut through Verdi’s heavy and emotional score like a knife through butter. And Leonora’s avenging brother, Don Carlo di Vargas (Anthony Michaels-Moore) was sung with total authority with an edgy nervousness and urgency of a man bent on hell and revenge,
But a lovely and entertaining surprise came with Israeli-born, mezzo-soprano, Rinat Shaham (an ENO newcomer) as the gypsy girl, Preziosilla. Such an engaging singer, she reached over the footlights with commanding ease to deliver her tuneful number in praise of military life rallying the troops. Rum-tum-tum!
British baritone Andrew Shore shone as Friar Melitone, a character portrayed as sadistic and perverted who gained sexual gratification in undressing and preparing Leonora for a world of poverty and chasteness while crowning her with a piece of barbed-wire thus turning her into a Christ-like figure. And it’s with the wire that she brings the end to her life and not by the promised hand of her brother who damns her to the end while her lover is despairing to the end in traditional Verdi style.
And a singer I’m always pleased to see on stage at the Coliseum is former ENO Opera Works singer, Clare Presland, who made a wonderful contribution as Leonora’s maid, Curra. She made her ENO début in 2012 as the Palestinian Woman in John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and, currently, is appearing as Sonyetka in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s five-star production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the small (but critical) role of Sonyetka.
Mark Wigglesworth, in the pit for his second show as ENO’s new music director, produced the goods in his own inimitable way. And what a start he has had to his tenure! He’s flourishing in St Martin’s Lane, too.