Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Verdi's ironies : a thoughtful Force of Destiny, ENO

At the ENO Verdi The Force of Destiny last night someone remarked: "What pretty tunes! Why can't the show be cheery?" Perhaps that's the measure of audiences today, but, quite inadvertently, this stabbed through to the heart of what Verdi might have intended. The music in the Overture surges, as a screaming protest at La forza del destino - relentless fate - a folly which destroys individuals, families, whole nations.  Yet in the midst of this carnage, the Fate theme dances seductively. Is it a "pretty tune" or something disturbing?

Is Verdi telling us that appearances deceive?  The Marquis of Calatrava (Matthew Best) hates Don Alvaro with an irrational fury because Don Alvaro (Gwyn Hughes Jones)  is a half breed. Identities constantly change. Don Carlo (Anthony Michaels-Moore) impersonates a student. Don Alvaro becomes Friar Raffaello. Leonore (Tamara Wilson)  becomes a mysterious hermit but chooses a male monastery. Delusion dominates, not reason.  Don Carlo has been hunting a half breed for years but whern he meets his soldier friend, he doesn't notice ? So much for blind prejudice.  He's obsessed to psychotic extremes even though he doesn't actually know what really happened, or care enough to find out.  The monk, too, collude in delusion, too cowed to wonder why the hermit must be shielded. They're obeying orders. Like soldiers, like Don Carlo, like the racist Marquis, they get caught in the lockstep of doing as they're told, without thinking for themselves.

What is war itself, but delusion on a grand scale? Preziosilla (Rinat Shaham) isn't a simple
gypsy.   Her very first words are "Viva la guerra" . She whips the crowd into bloodthirsty frenzy. Yet as a war widow and a teller of fortunes, she ought to know better. She has a pretty name but a malevolent, almost demonic presence. Wars don't happen without folks like this.  Verdi didn't, I think, write the part to give a bit of tacky local colour. In la forza del destino, the delusions of society are complicit in its destruction.  Even the Church, which distributes alms but not the genuine piety that Jesus taught, "Love their neighbour as thyself". When Friar Melitone (Andrew Shore) tells a woman tthat she could solve her problems by having fewer children, he's being realistic. In Verdi's time, such sentiments would have been even close to blasphemy for they suggest that God doesn't control fate, butb that human beings have responsibility, too.  Melitone has a mellifluous name but it's not ironic like Preziosilla's. He is not a villain but the voice of reason. Suffering is wrong, it should upset us.

Calixto Bieito's La forza del destino is deeply perceptive because it addresses the fundamental forces whch shape what we might call destiny, but which might lie in the human psyche  and an almost Nietzschean will for evil. His Spanish Civil War references are relevant, though probably lost on English-speaking audiences. In any case, they're fairly generic. The focus remains on the Calatrava mania for mindless vendetta.   So we don't see Don Carlo stab Leonore ? She dies because she's caught up in the emotional barbed wire of the craziness around her. By sacrificing herself, she redeems Don Alvaro. Her actions thus break the cycle of selfish, obsessive hatred which has really destroyed the proud house of Calatrava.

The set, designed by Rebecca Ringst, is very effective - Spanish-style facades, seen in strange angles, their underpinning revealed. Video projections (Sarah Derendinger)  suggest what Don Alvaro,and Leonore might have been as children, developing their backstories more than the libretto does, but extend our appreciation of the characters. A little girl draws crazy circles with a mechanical hand: Leonore didn't love Don Alvaro enough to run from her father when she had the chance.

This ENO Force of Destiny moves on to the Met as La forza del destino, which is perhaps why it's fairly muted, and includes a cast of Americans and honorary Americans like Anthony Michaels-Moore. Tamara Wilson created the part of Leonore well, nice warm roundness in her voice, emphasizing the savagery of her fate. Gwyn Hughes Jones sang Don Carlo  even more persuasively. His voice is a treasure, and he has great acting skills, No surprise that he's an ENO favourite, and a reason why the ENO, with its programme of supporting singers with an English (or Welsh) background is to be welcomed. So Wilson and Hughes Jones are generously proportioned? So are their voices, which is what opera is about. It's theatre, the art of imagination, not legally binding documentary. In any case, the theme of feast and fasting runs throughout the opera. Leonore and her father are at dinner when he gets killed. Friar Melitone feeds the starving, though not enough to make them whole. In the monastery, Leonore and Don Alvaro pray and fast but they will not solve their problems until they find spiritual resolution.

If opera should merely be a collection of pretty tunes, then a drama about hate, war and madness  should merit pretty staging.  But Bieito's production deals with the drama and the irony that runs throughout.  Bieito's La Forza del Destino isn't pretty though it's not outrageous. But anyone genuinely interested in Verdi, and the ideas and emotions that motivated him, will do well to learn from this production.

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