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Francesca Zambello's The Force of Destiny

Tour de force--Francesca Zambello's production for Washington National Opera of The Force of Destiny (La forza del destino) by Giuseppe Verdi is an absolute tour de force.

Opening night, October 12, 2013, Zambello, WNO Artistic Director, demonstrated her prowess in all aspects of operatic art: choosing and interpreting a complex rarely performed opera, enlisting a cast of remarkable singers--especially American soprano Adina Aaron who sang the role of Donna Leonora of Vargas, and assembling a creative team that made every aspect exciting, including music (conductor Xian Zhang was masterful energizing glue), sets (Peter J. Davison's bawdy inn with neon yellow-eyed green dragon with red tongue was a wow), and choreography (Eric Sean Fogel's pole-dancing girls had eye-catching moves with their feet on the stage floor). This is a production worth seeing twice.The Force of Destiny 2 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg

Ever since the Dresser saw WNO's 2004 production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd as directed by Zambello and interviewed her in 2005, the Dresser has been a fan. Zambello may be the best artistic director WNO ever had because she is making it her business to reach out to a wider spectrum of audience. Updating The Force of Destiny with emphasis on gun and knife violence, trash-piled street scenes of destitute people being served soup by clergy, the lively but sleezy nightclub, and the bivouac of men in war makes this opera speak to the troubles of our time.

The Force of Destiny 1 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpgThe story revolves around two star-crossed young lovers--Donna Leonora and Don Alvaro (Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve)--who plan to elope. When Alvaro shows up to claim his bride, she hesitates saying she must see her father one more time, a fatal mistake. Her protective sire, the Marquis of Calatrava (American bass Peter Volpe), enters the room, telling Alvaro to leave. Alvaro declares his love is so strong that the father must kill him, but the Marquis disdains dirtying his hands with the blood of a foreigner. Alvaro throws down his pistol which fires accidentally wounding the Marquis. Leonora urges Alvaro to flee, bends to her father and then confirming his death also flees. Leonora's brother Don Carlo (American baritone Mark Delavan) enters the room and vows revenge.

Dressed in male clothing, Leonora travels to a monastery to seek protection from a sympathetic monk named Father Guardiano (Italian bass Enrico Iori) who once sheltered another woman. After rigorous questioning, Leonora is assigned a cell where she will live without human contact for years, something she is willing to do given her role in her father's death. In parallel, Alvaro, believing Leonora is dead, goes to war and becomes good friends with Leonora's brother after Alvaro saves Carlo's life. They don't recognize each other and both have assumed aliases. Eventually, Carlo figures out who Alvaro is and Alvaro flees to become a monk in Father Guardiano's monastery.

Based on the Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino by poet/dramatist Ángel de Saavedra y Ramírez de Baquedano, Duque de Rivas and a scene adapted from Friedrich Schiller's Wallensteins Lager, La forza del destino had a libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave. Verdi premiered the work as Don Álvaro in 1862 in St. Petersburg. While the opera had productions in Rome (1863), New York and Vienna (1865), Buenos Aires (1866) and London (1867), Verdi was not satisfied with the work. By the time he was ready to revise, Piave had fallen ill. With help from Antonio Ghislanzoni (he later wrote the libretto to Aida), Verdi added a final scene to Act 3 and changed its ending so that the gypsy Preziosilla (Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze) leads the soldiers in the victory song "Rataplan." In the original last scene of the opera, Carlo, Leonora, and Alvaro die (Alvaro mortally wounds Carlo but before Carlo dies he stabs Leonora, and Alvaro commits suicide). In the revised version Alvaro is dissuaded from suicide by Father Guardiano. The revised opera premiered at La Scala in 1869 and has become the preferred version. In her production, Zambello goes back to the original order of scenes in act III by ending with a confrontation between the Alvaro and Leonora's revenge-obsessed brother Carlo.

Despite the heavy subject, comic scenes provide relief. In the hands of a lesser director, some of these light moments could play badly. Notable is the scene where Leonora bangs on the monastery door asking for Guardiano. Brother Melitone (Colombian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas) reluctantly retrieves Father Guardiano and then more reluctantly resists leaving the Father alone with the stranger who insists on privacy so she can reveal her secret. Melitone retorts, "What am I, a cabbage?" With body language, Lanchas as Melitone has already established himself as a busybody so his absurd remark does not fall flat and the audience laughs.

Using mime, Zambello fills in gaps. At the opening of Act 1, she introduces Leonora and her family seated at the dinner table with her father and brother in a wordless scene. It's a good way to help the audience learn who the many characters are. The Force of Destiny 5 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpgEmbellishing the starkness of a war camp in Act 3, Scene 1, Zambello punctuates Alvaro's anguished aria in which he yearns for Leonora by use of a scrim to suggest he is in a dream state and then by having Leonora, wearing the same strapless red dress that she wore the night of their failed elopement, wander into the scene and lay down with him and on top of him. When the scene changes with Carlo calling out in distress for his life, Leonora wanders out of the scene and the scrim is lifted. Attention to details like these two examples add to any director's value, but in any case helps the audience to connect the dots in who is who.

From the moment Adina Aaron as Leonora began singing in Act 1, she established that her voice would not be covered either by the orchestra or choral singing. This is not to say that the orchestra was too loud, conductor Xian Zhang did an outstanding job with sound levels, blending, and keeping the singers on track. This is to say that Aaron has a powerful and beautiful voice capable in all aspects required for large-scale opera. Initially the Dresser worried that Monsalve as Don Alvaro was not a good match. His singing in the opening scene seemed weak in comparison to hers. In later scenes, he produced the virtuosity required to be her leading man. Other notable singers in this performance were Peter Volpe as Marquis of Calatrava, Mark Delavan as Don Carlo, Enrico Iori as Father Guardiano, and Valeriano Lanchas as Brother Melitone.
The Force of Destiny 4 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
Shara Lessley's poem "The Countervoice" speaks to the inner turmoil suffered by Don Álvaro and Donna Leonora over the death of Leonora's father and the loss of their union. In the name of survival, both stop their lives in the bleached white environment of their hiding place: the monastery. By showing the monks going to prayer in a ground smog of white clouds (this occurs when Leonora enters the monastery), Zambello suggest this community has already ascended to heaven.


...............Yourself, the rule.
Yourself the maker of its exception.
..............................Snow fills the nest's ladle.

...............Whiteness. Talons clasped,
the cardinal sits on the ice-
..............................clipped bough, motionless. Everything

...............bleached to nothing. The bird's
undistracted color: winter's counterpoint.
..............................Should survival require such deliberate

...............action? That difficult
grace called once
..............................in defense, not too unlike a bird

...............fallen less from flight
than instinct. What I wanted was
..............................to know what sadness isn't

...............in part exhaustion?
Something ravenous not ravenous
..............................enough. Unattended to, the nest

...............naturally spills over; self-
induced or by accident, the heart
..............................just stops. Like silence: snow drifting,

...............drifting. Often I thought,
if only I could make myself
..............................still enough. Porcelain still. Cardinal

...............still. Go farther even,
inside. This too shall pass,
..............................I reasoned not, knowing

...............what (if anything)
to answer. Not knowing then, too
..............................often a bird will abandon

the branch that snaps beneath it.

Shara Lessley
from Two-Headed Nightingale

Copyright © 2012 Shara Lessley


Comments (1)

To read Karren is just like being there. Thank you for the vivid descriptive prose.

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