In another display of her seemingly unbounded creative energy Francesca Zambello revealed her new production of “The Force of Destiny [La Forza del Destino]”, yet another contribution to the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth.
[Below: Stage director Francesca Zambello, here in the first staging of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” as part of the Zambello “Ring of the Nibelungs”; resized image of a photograph for the Washington National Opera.]
Although her production is certain to create controversy, Zambello showed that one can translate Verdi’s expansive story into a 21st century context and retain and even enhance its dramatic impact.
[Below: Leonora (Adina Aaron, right), distressed that her planned elopement has accidentally ended in the death of her father, (Peter Volpe, on floor), decides not to leave with Don Alvaro (Giancarlo Monsalve, second from right ); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
A Well Sung “Forza”
For those who come to “Forza” solely for the singing, rather than the storyline, she offered an incomparable cast.
American soprano Adina Aaron was Leonora, Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve was her lover, Don Alvaro, and American baritone Mark Delavan was her brother Carlo. Aaron, Monsalve and Delavan proved to be a formidable trio, both vocally and dramatically.
On Zambello’s New Production
However, no matter how memorable the singing, the buzz on this opening night will inevitably be on the production itself.
Those who have read my reviews will know I am no fan of production designers and stage directors who “disrespect” the storyline devised by composer and librettist. Some productions, like many music videos, introduce images that appear to have no other purpose than to have some visual distraction to accompany the music.
However, I have high regard for those persons who design and who stage productions of familiar opera in non-traditional ways, if that product is faithful to the essence of the story and provides new insights into the work. Francesca Zambello is one such person.
[Below: Preziosilla (Ketevan Kemoklidze, center in white blouse) does her part for the war effort in the town Hornachuelos; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Verdi and his librettists tackled the Spanish Duke of Rivas’ sprawling early 19th century play Don Alvaro, or the Force of Destiny by reducing the number of characters who are members of the fated family of the Marquis of Calatrava, while introducing new characters and situations not in Rivas’ work.
The play was placed in the 1740s and included scenes at the the Battle of Velletri, Italy (1744) during the War of the Austrian Succession (a war ostensibly fought over whether a woman, Maria Theresa, could inherit the Austrian throne.)
Even the most skeptical Verdian about the idea of changing the setting of a Verdi opera might have to concede that nothing in the opera has anything really to do with the War of Austrian Succession or its Battle of Velletri. The character Alvaro is wounded under heavy fire, but it could have been any battle in any war without changing the circumstances of the plot.
Yet, for Verdi to accommodate the Velletri Connection, he sets the first, second and fourth acts in Spain and the third act in Italy. This requires five characters (Don Alvaro, Don Carlo, the fortune teller Preziosilla, the tinker Trabuco, and the Spanish monastery’s Fra Melitone) with varying degrees of plausibility, to travel between the vicinity of Hornachuelos in Spain and the Velletri battlefield in Italy.
[Below: Trabuco (Robert Baker, left), Brother Melitone (Valeriano Lanchas, second from left) and Preziosilla (Ketevan Kemoklidze, center) in a scene that Zambello has moved from Velletri, Italy back to the vicinity of Hornachuelos, Spain.)]
Zambello employs an idea we have seen her use before – of Verdi’s wars being modern day urban battles [Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012.] The lead male “Forza” characters – Alvaro and Carlo – are introduced into lively urban battle scenes – complete with explosions, assault rifles and tommyguns, and makeshift battlefield surgery units.
(Verdi, a supporter of the Italian Risorgimento, was known to have funded arms for the insurgents, which, to me, suggests that Zambello is not so far off the Verdian mark.)
Because this urban warfare takes place near in and about the town of Hornachuelos and its nearby monastery, many of the famous “improbabilities” of the opera seem less a concern. None of the “common folk” have to engage in travel to distant Italy for warfare to be near at hand.
With the time-shift to modern day, the community has a more contemporary feel. Hornachuelos’ Mayor (Soloman Howard) is a shades-wearing streetwise politician who might have cut his teeth in the Baltimore politics of David Simon’s HBO series “The Wire”.
[Below: the Mayor of Hornachuelos (Solomon Howard, left, wearing sunglasses) stands behind Preziosilla (Ketevan Kemoklidze); edited image based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
The services provided war weary soldiers at day’s end include sexy pole-dancing women, a diner, and the salesman Trabuco likely dealing in whatever substances a soldier needs. Yet, there is no doubt soldiers in the 18th century were seeking the same comforts as an urban warrior of our own day.
“Forza’s” Lead Character: Fate
Normally, it would be considered an error to use the phrase title role for “La Forza del Destino”, but I believe that the case can be made that it is Fate (destino) rather than any of the human characters who motivates everything that happens in the opera. The title character in Bizet’s “Carmen” would understand this concept, when, in the Card Scene, she divines that Don Jose will kill her and die soon afterwards. Nothing that she or he can do will change their Fate.
If one accepts that premise, then I can vouch for everything that happens dramatically to the Marquis of Calatrava’s family in the Zambello “Forza”. All the coincidences that have bothered some opera goers over the past century and a half wash away. (Worried, as so many 19th century French critics were about Alvaro’s hand gun accidentally discharging and killing Leonora’s father? Have Leonora try to wrestle the handgun out of Alvaro’s hand and that is taken care of as well.)
Zambello’s Course of Destiny
A theatrical genius like Zambello, with both Rivas’ and Verdi’s versions of the story to choose from (and singers who can act), has all she needs to tell the story.
She begins the opera with an extensive pantomime of a dinner set for the Marquis of Calatrava (Peter Volpe), Leonora di Vargas (Adina Aaron) and her brother Don Carlo (Mark Delavan).
When Carlo and the Marquis finish dinner and retire, the prologue to the opera begins.
Leonora’s maid Curra (Deborah Nansteel) begins to set in motion the opportunity for Leonora’s lover Alvaro (Giancarlo Monsalve) to enter the dining room and effect Leonora’s escape with him. However, Leonora hesitates and her father surprises her in the company of Alvaro. At the Marquis’ curse of Leonora and his subsequent death, Alvaro, distraught, leaves without her.
Alvaro had left behind the clothing intended for Leonora to travel in disguise. Her father dead, she dons the disguise and escapes. In a second pantomime (since his appearance is extra-textual), Carlo arrives on the scene, finds the Marquis’ body, assaults Curra, and leaves in pursuit of the Alvaro and Leonora.
[Below: Leonora (Adina Aaron), disguised as a student, seeks refuge at the Hornochuelos Monastery; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
At this point the famous Overture begins, the orchestra conducted with spectacular results by the debuting Chinese conductor Xian Zhang.
After an interval of several months in which Alvaro disappears, Leonora is hidden by a relative.
Fate brings Carlo and Leonora together in the town of Hornochuelos, through which Leonora is traveling to seek refuge in the Hornochuelos Monastery.
The monastery’s father superior (the sonorous Italian basso Enrico Iori) accepts her as an initiate who will live in the monastery’s grounds as a solitary hermit.
[Below: Father Guardiano (Enrico Iori, on balcony, center, in red) instructs the assembled monks to avoid the hermitage on pain of being cursed; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Peter J. Davison’s sets make it clear that this monastery not only serves the community’s indigent (this directly from Verdi), but that it is located in a seedy area, which, we will learn, is not far from the war zone.
Washington National Opera, as often occurs in contemporary productions, splits the opera into two parts with an intermission after the showstopping scene of the investiture of Leonora in the monastery (and Adina Aaron’s exquisitely sung Madre, pietosa Vergine.)
The second part opens with Alvaro’s dream of Leonora. In his vision, she is dressed in the same evening gown in which she last appeared to him.
[Below: Leonora (Adina Aaron, left) appears in a dream to Alvaro (Giancarlo Monsalve, right); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
The battle scenes, which involve both Monsalve’s Alvaro and Delavan’s Carlo were magnificently done. Not only are both powerful Verdian singers, but they are superb actors, exuding the machismo that makes Zambello’s staging of Verdi so theatrically realistic.
Here, again, the geographical change of the scenes in Italy to the same area of Spain as the monastery and its adjacent town even allows Zambello another plot clarification. The irascible monk, Brother Melitone, is superbly played by Colombian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas. But over the decades of “Forza” productions, the plot device of a Spanish monk’s visit to Valletri, Italy was considered so unlikely that his scene with his wonderful aria has often been cut.
Zambello’s new geography makes sense of it all. Melitone has only a few steps from the monastery to deliver his “fire and brimstone” message to those whom he considers to be errants.
In another brilliantly extra-textual innovation, when Alvaro despairs of his existence after his duel with Carlo, and makes the sudden decision to desert the troops that he commands for a religious retreat, it is Fra Melitone who quickly ushers him into the monastery. Here, Alvaro takes on a new identity as Brother Rafael.
Verdi’s final act begins with the scene in which Melitone expresses his distaste for the lifestyles of those who receive the monastery’s charity (for those who might think that Zambello has embellished the supertitles, it’s all there in Verdi’s libretto.)
[Below: Father Guardiano (Enrico Iori, right) lectures the disgruntled Melitone (Valeriano Lanchas, left) on the meaning of charity; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
This is followed by the most famous aria in the opera, Leonora’s Pace, pace mio dio which Aaron sang with a purity of tone and expressiveness throughout the wide-ranging dynamics – fortissimo to pianissimo – of the aria. There was little doubt that she is emerging as one of the great Verdi singers of our age.
[Below: Adina Aaron as Leonora, in her hermitage at the Hornochuelos monastery; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Carlo tracks him down as at the monastery. Here, Fate, having already taken the life of the Marquis, ends the life of the Marquis’ two children, Carlo and Leonora, with only Alvaro, now a monk in service to his fellow man, surviving.
Other Notes on the Production and Performance
American tenor Robert Baker played Trabuco, American baritone Christian Bowers was the Army Surgeon. Catherine Zuber was the Costume Designer.
For those who wish to hear a brilliant musical performance of “La Forza del Destino”, in which extraordinary voices are cast in each of the principal roles, I recommend this cast and conductor without reservation.
For those who wish to see a “Forza del Destino” presented in a dramatically valid concept, that resolves the problems that have tarnished its theatrical reputation, I recommend this production and staging without reservation.
For those who wish to see both a well sung and dramatically valid “Forza del Destino”, I recommend this cast and production without reservation.
For my comments on other productions of “Forza del Destinto, see: Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”.
For my reviews of Francesca Zambello’s productions starring Mark Delavan, see: “Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011, and also,
For my interview with Mark Delavan, see: The Dawning of a New Wotan: Interview with Mark Delavan Part 1, and also,