Tuesday, 29 June 2010

La Forza del Destino at Vienna's State Opera

Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) (courtesy Wikipedia)

The Italians are the world's best opera singers! And Italian is the natural language of opera!

We need think only of the gondolier calling to his friend the inn keeper across the Grand Canal in Venice, or of the busy Naples housewife hanging out her washing on her high balcony while calling out to her child in the street far below and the child calling back. It's all opera. And opera, when all is said and done, is an Italian word (from the Latin opus).

And so Richard Wagner, knowing the source, plagarised the best Italian composers to some tune. But I digress.

After witnessing yesterday evening's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, La forza del destino, at Vienna's State Opera I am more convinced than ever of the basic truth of my opening statement.

The main protagonists: Micaela Carosi (Leonora); Alberto Gazale (Don Carlo); Fabio Armiliato (Alvaro); ably supported by Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla) and Sorin Coliban (Melitone) were nothing less than superb. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra, finely conducted by Marco Armiliato, was also nothing less than superb. The rest of the cast and also the Vienna State Opera Choir were, it has to be said, also superb. It was altogether, as you may have gathered by now, an altogether superb evening of top class opera!

During the period leading up to the scheduled premier in 1861 it so happened that Italy was at war with Austria. It was the time of the infamous Battle of Solferino, a field of slaughter so bad, that the whole of Europe was left in a state of shock. How could so many perish in one day; in one battle? The figure was, I believe, over 30,000 killed. An unbelievable toll, even for those times. It was, in fact, out of the Solferino carnage that the Red Cross was born. Not surprising then, that La forza del destino, premiered not in Milan but in St. Petersburg. It would be 1869 before Italian audiences got to see it.

David Poutney's sparse scenery had the advantage that the players could perform at the top of their ability without the distractions of superfluous ornamentation and unrequired props. I say players because performers must be more than mere singers; there was so much opportunity on Poutney's set for some fine acting, and it very often came to the fore.

The symbolism was contained in the few props; the moving shadows, the subtle light changes. It was enough; the story, the atmosphere, the effect of the music and the text, was all the stronger for that. White crosses on holy books and bloodstained swords have, after all, the same shape. And it seems, quite often, the same stark message: Where corruption and debauchery reign war will surely follow.

The wheel of destiny revolves not unlike the barrel of a revolver and sometimes the bullet flies out to find its target. If your name is on the bullet it will find you. In the opening cinematography the revolver spins and tumbles in space with hypnotic elegance and grace. Finally the bullet emerges from the barrel and spins towards its destination. In this case a man. His name is the Marquis of Calatrava. He dies. It is an accident. And it is also destiny. The bullet was intended for the one who held the revolver. His name is Alvaro. Now he must flee.

The dead man's daughter Leonora, like her suitor Alvaro, will flee too. She will seek refuge at a monastery in the mountains. Disguised as a hermit she will find sanctuary in a cave in the rocks. Amid gentle organ music and subdued lighting she will prostrate herself and give herself to the religious life, witnessed by a violin solo of the first magnitude; a new cross will be born in a golden light and a light shower of harp music.

But as we forsee, after some years, destiny will bring the couple together again. And when this happens the hand of fate will give the wheel of destiny another spin. Leonora will perish. The bullet of destiny will bring her down. Only God, waiting in heaven, can make amends.

Verdi's majestic overture was played to a black and white film of a slowly spinning wheel and then suddenly there was a blank screen and from being hypnotised we suddenly became aware that we could concentrate, focus our attention, on the final musical crescendo.

In the second act, by way of contrast, the overture will work around a heavenly sunrise and a birdlike sound, perhaps it's a lark, and maybe it's rising to heaven. Perhaps a lark ascending (as with Vaughan Williams) and now bringing new hope. But we shall have to wait and see what destiny has to say. This much we know from the distant rumble of dark notes.

The gun, the book, and the word of God. But what are they when destiny is in the game?

To put on La forza del destino, a 3-hour story of Pace and Guerra, and the effects of War and Peace on our destiny is a tremendous undertaking. It needs top quality in all departments to get away with it. Otherwise don't bother. But they had the quality in all departments and they certainly took the bother to show it.

The reward - a well deserved standing ovation. Many bravi, brava, bravo, and bravissimo from the delighted audience.

And so, as the 19-year term of Ioan Holender as the Vienna State Opera director draws all too quickly to its close we can reflect that we, the public, have during his term enjoyed some of the best new opera talent from around the world. It has been our destiny and our privilege to do so. It has been Ioan Holender's destiny to discover it and provide it. I, for one, thank him with much gratitude.
gwilym williams

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