Broadway World, Mar. 22, 2019
by Flora Seymour
Verdi: La forza del destino, London, ab 21. März 2019
BWW Review: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, Royal Opera House
Not since a memorable La traviata in 2008 have superstars Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann appeared together at the Royal Opera House.

Small wonder, then, that their pairing as fate-thwarted lovers Leonora and Don Alvaro in Verdi's sprawling tragedy La Forza del Destino sent the Royal Opera House booking system into meltdown, with tickets soon appearing on external sites for four-figure sums.

No sooner had that excitement subsided than the usual rumours started circulating: one or other of the stars would pull out - both have form. And when Kaufmann failed to appear for the dress rehearsal, the doom-mongers' chatter gained volume.

But, in a nicely operatic irony, a piece about malign fate and blighted opportunity saw stars - both heavenly and closer to home - align. All were present and radiantly, sumptuously correct on opening night, Netrebko and Kaufmann just the gloss on a cast of a depth and breadth you only rarely hear.

"An inexorable fate drive me on," proclaims Leonora, while her would-be lover Don Alvaro is the luckless "prey of fate". Even Leonora's brother and (spoiler) eventual murderer Don Carlo sees his vengeance as "written in the book of fate".

But, despite all of this, La Forza del Destino really isn't a tragedy of fate at all. Luck plays at best a supporting role in a story about implacable hatred, racism, religious guilt and bitterness - all the worse for being dressed up as righteous vengeance and justice.

Christof Loy's new production has little interest in any of this. The question of Alvaro's mixed-race origins (he's frequently described as a "mulatto") is left untouched, while the broader canvass of wartime conflict - tensions both within and between nations - is painted in only the most generalised of terms.

What it does deliver on, thanks to designer Christian Schmidt, is spectacle. This is a handsome, stage-filling show that turns the screw on a rather unwieldy drama by bringing it full circle.

We open (in flashback) in the once-grand Calatrava mansion in Seville, watching a young Leonora and her brothers enacting a juvenile Pieta. To deliver the grown-up heroine not to the isolated hermit's cave of the libretto but back to this place in Act IV is to tighten the claustrophobic sense of destiny, making up for the rather gauche spectacle of Act III's chorus finale, where all the dancers and gimmicks in the world can't equal the electricity between the two male leads.

Because, while Netrebko makes an opulent Leonora - a role debut that shows off an increasingly sooty and weighted lower register - risking all vocally (if never quite dramatically) and taking us right to the edge of desperation in "Pace, pace mio Dio", she and Kaufmann seem to perform at rather than with one another in the opera's rare moments of confrontation. It's the complicated bromance between Alvaro and Carlo that draws out Verdi's real power with a duet, providing the platform from which Kaufmann and Ludovic Tezier dive to such heights and depths here.

Kaufmann makes the craggy reticence of Alvaro work for him in delivery whose bluntness adds interest to this cipher of a man, but it's Tezier, all burnished glow and relentless line, who is really at home in this writing - surely, since the cruel loss of Hvorostovsky, the finest Verdi baritone working today?

Only a little less exciting is the pairing between the mighty Ferruccio Furlanetto as the stern Padre Guardiano and Alessandro Corbelli as his garrulous sidekick Fra Melitone. Add to this support from comic veteran Carlo Bosi as peddler Trabuco and an Alcalde full of promise from Jette Parker Young Artist Michael Mofidian, and you have an unassailable line-up.

Only Veronica Simeoni's Preziosilla is miscast, lacking the power to propel her around Verdi's demanding, low-lying writing, even if she can shimmy with the best of them in Otto Pichler's rather intrusive choreography.

Loy's production has plenty of flaws. Its time-travelling refusal to settle in era or place weakens its already fragile dramatic grip, and filmed projections add unnecessary melodrama to an already over-the-top plot, as does a misguided attempt to sex-up Leonora's visit to the monastery.

But really none of that matters when the music is this good. Antonio Pappano propels Verdi's juggernaut of a score with control pitched right on the brink of chaos - scowling dark with fury and risk and pathos. His cast match him for thrills, and the result is as exhilarating as it is unstoppable.

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