Verdi - La Forza del Destino

ONP Bastille, Tuesday November 29 2011

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Jean-Claude Auvray. Sets: Alain Chambon. Costumes; Maria-Chiara Donato. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Il Marchese di Calatrava: Mario Luperi. Donna Leonora: Violeta Urmana. Don Carlo di Vargas: Vladimir Stoyanov. Don Alvaro: Marcelo Alvarez. Preziosilla: Nadia Krasteva. Padre Guardiano: Kwangchul Youn. Fra Melitone: Nicola Alaimo. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National De Paris.

I don’t always read the reviews before going along to the opera, but this time I did and found them ominously full of faint praise. “Inoffensive” production (in these uncertain times in Paris, that’s seen as a good thing). “Well-made costumes… secondary roles well sung…” In the event, the production wasn’t so much inoffensive as inexistent; and while Alvarez was off sick on the first night, he was there yesterday, more of which later.

I suppose quoting yourself isn’t done, a good enough reason to do it. You may remember that, after Faust, I wrote: “First Mireille (‘Putain, Mireille!’ as a French friend kept repeating), then Francesca de Rimini, now Faust. Is Joël trying to prove something?.” I realised last night that I’d miscounted: the singing in Werther so eclipsed the production that I forgot how dire it was. In other words, Faust made four stinkers, not three; and Forza makes five. I suppose I can see why a friend suggested, this morning, “Better that than Martinoty.” But I must admit that, by the time things had ground on as far as Preziosilla’s ineffable “Rataplan” racket, I was in “Springtime for Hitler” mode, gaping at the awfulness of it all.

There were no sets to speak of, just painted sheets - mostly abstract, maroon smudges but, in the first scene at least, imitating walls with paintings. They were lowered or raised or brought in sideways; or sometimes fell or were pulled to the floor and dragged slowly off by invisible hands. If that sounds reminiscent of the 80s, it’s normal: this new production, clapped out at birth, was pure 80s Garnier standard. It was so reminiscent, indeed, of Paris’s early 80s Tosca that I did a bit of Googling this morning and found, lo and behold, that Auvray was responsible for that as well. I suppose we must give him first prize for consistency. So, sheets gliding, rising or falling; a long, ugly wooden table (in Tosca it was grey marble, as I remember) and two even uglier, knobbly chairs – the same table and chairs turned up in Leonora’s dad’s Seville dining room at the start, in the officers’ quarters in Italy and probably in the monastery as well. At one stage, it doesn’t matter much which, a dramatically-lit giant Christ, crucified but cross-less, was lowered in, back to the audience, on ropes attached to his outstretched wrists like an Olympic gymnast doing something tricky on the rings. I wondered if he’d been recycled from Faust. This kind of large, single, realistic object, starkly lit, was a recurrent feature of 80s productions (in Tosca, it was the angelo atop the Castel). At another stage, a distant mountain range appeared low in the distance against a blank sky (in Tosca, the Roman skyline). At the end, that same giant Christ was lying on the ground on the left (like statues of heroes in most 80s productions) while Leonora hid under the painted sheet from the opening scene (her dad’s Seville dining room) before it was dragged slowly off by invisible hands.

The acting was so conventional you wondered if it were deliberately so; the crowd scenes might have been from any cash-strapped provincial house’s Carmen or Elisir d’Amore or any work involving peasants and/or gypsies, doing what peasants and gypsies always do in the circs (e.g. gypsy girls swaggering round with their hands on their hips and ogling the peasant boys). My neighbour was amazed such things still went on in international opera houses, “unless at the Met.” There was, however, a concept: this was supposed to be 1850, and there was a fleeting reference to the Risorgimento: soldiers painting out “la Guerra” on a sheet proclaiming “Viva la Guerra” and replacing it with “V.E.R.D.I.” But this came so perilously close to being an idea that it was immediately unhitched, rolled up and carted off by extras.

Now, the singers.

Among the principals, Alvarez’ voice was the only true Latin, Verdian sound. He was very, very good, but he had clearly not got over the illness that kept him away on the opening night and was not in full voice, though he did some very clever things pianissimo. At his peak, he would have been outstanding and I’m sorry not to have heard it. Violeta Urmana is, as you might guess, not a typical, romantic Leonora. She has none of the luminous femininity we might expect in the role and her top notes verge on (but are not) shrieks. Also, in her frumpish costumes and wigs, she sometimes looked like Susan Boyle. But I guess there can be different ways to “do” Leonora and as my neighbour rightly said, she’s a real professional. All the notes were there.

According to the friend quoted above (on Martinoty), Vladimir Stoyanov (Vargas) is “a shouter, like Nucci,” but as far as I know plenty of people get along alright with Nucci, and I thought he was pretty good, though when overstretched his intonation was occasionally dodgy. On that opening night, the critics got Zoran Todorovich instead of Alvarez, so if they didn’t like him (they mostly didn't), and weren’t keen on Urmana’s Leonora, and Nadia Krasteva was no more resounding a Preziosilla than yesterday evening, that might explain why they focused on the secondary roles: Youn was very good, though, hampered perhaps by the wooden production, not as striking as he can be; Nicola Alaimo was an excellent, funny Melitone.

The chorus were on reasonable form. But the truth I really should have got in earlier, if I’d been a cleverer writer, was that while little or nothing was happening on stage – however well people sang, the production did nothing to make the plot more plausible or legible, so there was little actual emotional impact - the real drama was in the pit. In case you didn’t know, in France, orchestras play well if they like the conductor and badly (in which case they can be truly awful) if they don’t. The Opera orchestra must love Jordan: they put in a ripping (yet nuanced and detailed) overture (between acts one and two) that brought the house down. So at the end, it was Jordan (whose precision conducting is worth watching) and the pit that got the loudest applause of all.

Opera Cake also enjoyed this show.


  1. By the way, for those who may be interested, if any: Joël is now running a 70s production of Cenerentola by a stage director who died in 1988, Ponnelle, at Garnier. I didn't buy tickets.

  2. I of course agree with all you've wrote there.

    The series continues: Mireille, Andrea Chenier, Sonnambula, Francesca da Rimini, Faust, La Forza del destino... not to mention two crappy revivals of Salomé, or the poorly resuscitated Nozze and La cenerentola... Manon is next.

    To be fair, most of the revivals are well done tho.

    The problem #1 with La Forza is that impossibly stupid libretto, and unless you hire an inventive director who can fill in the gaps and bring something intelligent to chew on, you're bound to hit the wall, head on!
    The only way out was to have a lineup of outstanding singers who would be able to distract the public from the intelligence-insulting storyline that was going on in the background. Outstanding singers were not at Bastille that night (apart from Youn and Alaimo as you say it too.)

    I didn't want to blog about La Forza because I felt -- after 5 excruciating hours at Bastille (with Todorovich, dazu!)-- I would just spill out a bucketful of anger... so better not!

    Thanks for the review. Cheers


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