Bieito’s Force of Destiny

21 Nov

It’s 11 years since the last Forza in London and it was certainly time for another.  It’s the sort of difficult opera that ought to be right up Calixto Bieito’s street and so I was looking forward to seeing the new ENO production which I saw on 18th November.

I think that it’s a shame the opera’s seen so little. There is so much fabulously fine music there and, as a picture of obsession in a time of uncertainty and war, I’m sure there’s a really memorable, interesting opera in there. Possibly. It’s an opera which requires a director to dare and to manage the epic aspects that I’m quite sure are here. Or, alternatively, something which accepts it as a grand opera with all that this implies.

Bieito’s production had its moments and I certainly wouldn’t write it off the way some people In audience did, but there are still some difficulties with it. First, and irritatingly, it begins with a very bright light being shone from the back of the stage into the audience. It provides a marvellous first shadowy picture of the Vargas family at dinner but at the expense of significant discomfort to quite a lot of the audience. The design concept is based on facades of buildings that are on huge trolleys and move around, are raised, lowered and angled – it seems to take forever for this to happen and army of stagehands seem to needed here – worse, it’s noisy. This feels like the clumsiest set I’ve seen in a long time.

More seriously, I think, is the way Bieito stages the crowd scenes at Hornachuelos and Velletri. In both cases the chorus stands and sings and there seems to be very little in the way of movement or direction of the characters. I found this partly unhelpful but, more seriously, really boring – there was nothing going on here to stop me closing my eyes.

Against this, I thought that the direction of the singers was strong. It feels odd that Leonora isn’t disguised as a man but the scene between her and the rather unpleasant Padre Guardiano was rather well done. I’ve never found Melitone a comic character and Andrew Shore’s grumpy, small-minded, rather sinister portrayal of him, with outstanding diction, struck me as spot-on. You get the mono-mania of Carlo really well – and also the sense, at times, of a chaotic, lawless society – it’s not too difficult to get refugees or wartime brutality wrong these days. I found myself intermittently engaging with the piece and, when I did, enjoying it.

Musically, there was marvellous stuff going on. Mark Wigglesworth struck me as conducting outstanding well: there was a real Verdian sweep to this, he accompanied the singers really well, phrasing gloriously and getting some really fine, subtle playing from the orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard such a fine piannissmo from them as he coaxed out at the end. It sounded right.

He used bits of the original version – a shorter overture and the Act III scenes switched.  I thought this worked rather well and better than Verdi’s second thoughts.

Tamara Wilson, who sang Leonora, is new to me. She has a grand figure and a voice to match – firmly produced, dramatic, apparently unfazed by any problems that lie in the writing. Her singing of her two arias gave you the sort of pleasure that you get from a singer completely in control. She has outstanding diction and I don’t think I’ve understood Pace pace so well before. She’ll be very welcome back in sing this sort of role any time she likes. Bieito made her kill herself at the end and that may not be a bad response for her.

Gwyn Hughes Jones through caution and elegance to the winds to make a vocally impassioned, possibly over-the-top Alvaro. He’s not really an actor but he sang the words clearly and believably. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s voice doesn’t sound as young as it used to, but he sounded pretty good and it’s a joy to hear stylish Verdi singing even if there are the odd rough edges: he gave a great portrayal of monomania. James Creswell sang the Padre Guardiano strongly and made an ambiguous figure.  Rinat Shahan was a vicious, lively terrorist of a Preziosilla who ended up shooting the prisoners in Act III.

What was best of all was the clarity of the diction and the fact that you could follow most of the piece without looking at the titles.

So musically this was a pretty satisfying evening. Bieito could, I felt, have explored a lot more about this piece and dared more.  But it’s good to see the piece again and this was a good evening for ENO.  I don’t suppose that we’ll see this production again but it would be good to see the opera again.




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