Drinking, whoring, revenge and religious hypocrisy – all are there in Verdi’s La forza del destino. Martin Kušej’s new production for the Bavarian State Opera shows all of them in their naturally blunt unloveliness.
It is a Pharisaical brand of faith that governs the Calatrava family in this Munich staging; even the security guard prays with the Marchese at dinnertime. Naturally the long-haired, jeans-clad Alvaro is not welcome in this world. But the fatal consequences of his unwitting gunshot blow more than just this domestic piety apart.
Verdi’s plot, with its tangle of disguises, implausible coincidences, gung-ho soldiers and drive towards retribution, is a difficult one for any modern stage director. Kušej faces the challenges head-on, translating the German-Italian war to today’s world of terror, reprisal and mendacity. In Martin Zehetgruber’s imposing sets, the narrow confines of a rich family’s dining-room give way to the smoking ruins of a large bomb explosion. The dazed, dusty citizens who wander through the ruins will later give way to half-crazed soldiers, bloodied and high, letting off tension by torturing suspects. Preziosilla, as the “gypsy” inciting them to further violence, has high boots, skimpy shorts and a whip.
The monastery in which Leonora hides is a mutation of the family home, and Padre Guardiano is the Marchese, largely unaltered, born again into a cult of white-clad Baptists. For the final scene, the room is filled with oversized white crosses, piled on one another like a funeral pyre, a stark symbol for the cold oppression of a society that uses the idea of propriety to crush its members.
Predictably enough, Kušej and his team were heftily booed at the premiere, but the singers were received with rapture. As Don Alvaro in a long-haired wig, Jonas Kaufmann looks a little too sweet, like Legolas trying to be Bruce Willis. But his singing is dashing, heroic, melting and easy. Still, it is Anja Harteros as the doomed Donna Leonora who wins the loudest cheers, for a towering performance as a figure who evolves from terror and hope through desperation to tragedy. Dudovic Tézier as the vengeance-obsessed Carlo di Vargas is also formidable, while Vitalkj Kowaljow’s spooky, sonorous Marchese/Padre Guardiano is chillingly effective.
In Asher Fisch’s hands, the score is less brutish than it often sounds; Fisch finds soft edges to the harsh rhythms, keeps the organic lines of human breath in all his phrases and finds surprises where so many of his peers would merely thrash through to a climax.
This is very fine Verdi indeed, a proud achievement for the house.