The talk of London’s opera season has been of little other than a new production, by the avant-garde director Christof Loy, of Giuseppe Verdi’s sprawling tale of the inescapability of fate and futility of revenge. Forza, as admirers and detractors alike call it, is notoriously difficult to stage. It requires principal singers of exceptional achievement, a supporting cast with stunning gravitas, and choral and orchestral performances capable of ranging from the heavenly heights of salvation to the basest elements of human degradation. The opera’s major task is to overcome the disbelief which it often arouses in audiences and the derision it has attracted even from Verdi’s greatest admirers. Based on a Spanish drama by the politically troubled Duke of Rivas and composed—uniquely in the European operatic tradition—for the Russian imperial theater (it premiered at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1862), the opera tells the sad fate of Leonora, the daughter of the Marchese di Calatrava, and her beloved Alvaro, a half-Incan outlaw persecuted for his Native American royal lineage and forced to live in disguise. Alvaro hopes to elope with Leonora, but he accidentally kills her father when they are discovered and spends the rest of the opera pining for her and trying to escape her brother Don Carlo’s revenge. Wracked with guilt, both he and Leonora take holy orders but are tracked down by Carlo, who goads Alvaro into a duel, and, though mortally wounded, succeeds in carrying out a deathbed honor killing of Leonora.

Forza, as admirers and detractors alike call it, is notoriously difficult to stage.

Forza’s original version calls for Alvaro to complete the cycle of death by jumping off a cliff, but relying on a more commonly performed revised version for the Italian stage, Loy has updated the action to the turn of the twentieth century, perhaps the last era when there was still something to be said for chivalry and the solemnity of faith. The action is enclosed within bare white and gray walls, with a cathedral-like alcove containing a crucifix looming over the opera’s religious scenes. The simplicity allows for the characters to develop in uninterrupted relief. This is visible during the famous overture, in which a series of pantomimes show Leonora, Alvaro, and Don Carlo growing from playful childhood through rebellious adolescence to the early adulthood of their passions and guilt. The conceit appears to be that their overprotected environment is what drives their zany adult actions, which are otherwise unintelligible without a complete surrender to the magic of opera. Just to prove the point, Carlo plays with a yo-yo in every stage of his youth and throughout much of the opera. The bare walls also allow for innovative video projections, which alternate between crushing scenes in full color and plaintive reminiscences in yellowed black and white. The latter are perfectly timed to musical themes in which the orchestra recalls earlier events, a reminder that Wagner was not the only composer to successfully employ leitmotifs.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Leonora. Photo: Bill Cooper.

The Royal Opera assembled a celebrity cast for this new production, initially headlined by superstar soprano Anna Netrebko and the renowned German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, both of whom are aggressively conquering the heavy Verdi roles to which so many singers aspire. Later in the run, including in the performance under review, they yielded to Liudmyla Monastyrska and Netrebko’s husband, the Algerian-born Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov (who still shared a couple of performances with his wife). Tickets for the first cast reportedly changed hands for as much as 3,500 pounds (or five thousand dollars), but the second cast should not be underrated. Monastyrska tackled the role at full volume, with a hefty soprano than only occasionally and in the most challenging moments became a throaty bark. The part’s best scenes—the final-act aria “Pace, pace, mio Dio” and the trio that ends the opera (grippingly staged here to end in a pietà pose illuminated in the manner of a Caravaggio painting) allowed her to rise to her best. Eyvazov, who sometimes seems a bit shy when performing alongside his spouse, was announced as suffering from a throat infection, but performed dashingly. Likewise, the rising baritone Christopher Maltman displayed extraordinary progress from his early-career Mozart roles into the difficult and sparsely populated realm of the anti-heroic Verdi baritone. Some might have preferred to hear his French colleague Ludovic Tézier, who sang in the initial performances, but with such quality the comparison could only have served as a comparative assessment of excellence.

The supporting roles added welcome bloom to the performance. The stalwart bass Ferruccio Furlanetto delivered the authoritative strains of the strict Father Superior Padre Guardiano with a charcoal depth of tone unheard since the long-gone days of Cesare Siepi. Alessandro Corbelli drew on his comedic talents to deliver Guardiano’s perfect foil, the befuddled monk Fra Melitone. The Calatrava household also suffered no want of talent. Robert Lloyd first sang the role of the Marchese at Covent Garden in 1973, and he has reprised it with undiminished authority throughout a distinguished forty-six-year career. Leonora’s nurse was admirably voiced by the distinguished soprano Roberta Alexander, who has recently revived her career in smaller roles after having risen to stardom some decades ago. The Royal Opera’s music director, Sir Antonio Pappano, led a stellar performance, perhaps one of his best in the Verdi repertoire. William Spaulding’s choral direction rose to every challenge with magnificent verve.

For those who missed Netrebko and were unconsoled by hearing her husband, Eyvazov, the Royal Opera’s revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust (concurrently running in Sir David McVicar’s production of 2004) offered an impressive glimpse of her ex-husband, the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, who sang a deliciously sneering Méphistofélès, the diabolical creature who wins the aged scholar Faust’s soul in return for restoring youth and its pleasures. McVicar’s production has aged and faded, and it remains a bit too labored for the opera, with the setting moved from Goethe’s staid Germany to Gounod’s boisterous Second Empire France. An impressive organ, played only at the moment of Marguerite’s damnation in Act IV, sits intrusively on stage for the entire evening. The production’s visual highlight came in its welcome but unusual incorporation of Gounod’s original ballet suite for the Walpurgis Night scene, which is often cut from performances. Here the setting is the stage of a theater of the era, with Méphistofélès living up to his earlier promise, grandly delivered in his aria “Le veau d’or,” that it is Satan who will lead the ball. The elegant ballet gradually dissolved from gracious classical motion into pure debauchery, ending in a fully clothed but titillating orgy choreographed to the suite’s frenzied finale.

Erwin Schrott in Faust. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The evening belonged to Schrott more than anyone, for we do so love a villain.

The evening belonged to Schrott more than anyone, for we do so love a villain. His arias were muscular and energetic, the subtlety of his acting a worthy study in evil. The scene in which he condemns Marguerite was hair-raising. Michael Fabiano’s Faust, which follows his performances as the same character in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this season, showed no lack of ardor. In the part’s signature aria, “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” however, he ducked out of the high note on the word “présence,” and instead took a weird falsetto. Irina Lungu’s Marguerite, in which role she replaced Diana Damrau, suffered from wavering pitch and an unattractive warble and only really came together in the opera’s final scenes, in which she escapes damnation. McVicar’s iteration of the opera’s conclusion shows Faust as the victim: as Méphistofélès tips his hat to acknowledge defeat before a winged God figure and descends to his realm, Faust is left alone on earth, back in the old age from which his pact with the devil had delivered him. Dan Ettinger’s workmanlike conducting kept a decent pace, but, as in Forza, Spaulding’s choruses really made the opera rise. The balance between the sacred and profane has not emerged in more pristine relief in any other performance of the opera I have ever attended.

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