The ill-fated characters in La forza del destino are pursued by a merciless demon. However far they run, wherever they try to hide, it is certain to find them out and visit upon them suffering way in excess of what their sins deserve, at least to 21st-century eyes. Although one of Verdi’s mature masterpieces, the opera is not performed often. Opera companies likewise run in fear of it – either for its length, or its cost, or because there no longer seem to be the singers for its leading roles.
Full marks to Opera Holland Park for giving La forza del destino a go. There is no scope for lavish productions at this venue, so director Martin Duncan has made a virtue out of necessity. He leaves the stage almost bare of decoration and fills it with a panorama of low-class humanity instead – raucous, seething crowds of peasants and soldiers, whose irrepressible energy is the counterpart to the negative force of the demon at work elsewhere. This is true to Verdi’s own view of the opera and turns it into a rousing evening in the theatre.
Against the odds the company has delivered a good all-round cast. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Peter Auty throw themselves into the doomed passion of Leonora and Don Alvaro, rising wholeheartedly to the tragic stature of their music – even if neither has the consistency of vocal production that would be ideal. Mark Stone makes a strong, forthright Don Carlo and Mikhail Svetlov brings a dark, east European resonance to the hallowed pronouncements of Padre Guardiano. Verdi himself thought the linchpin roles were the plebeian pair, camp-follower Preziosilla and bumbling friar Fra Melitone, and so they prove here – Carole Wilson playing an unapologetically coarse Preziosilla, like a cross between Mother Courage and the landlady of the Queen Vic, and Donald Maxwell working hard to get some humour out of the friar.
Thrust so often to the front of the stage, the Opera Holland Park chorus throws off its inhibitions and performs with high spirits, while conductor Stuart Stratford sets hell-for-leather speeds, as if pursued by demons of his own. The result is an exciting performance with some rough edges – the best way to play this tortured masterpiece. ()