Thursday, March 14, 2024

A "forza" of nature

 The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" for me accomplished what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk -- a totally successful work of art. 

Attending a March Saturday matinee, I was completely thrilled at director Mariusz Treliński's cinematic conception, a brilliant cast led by superstar-to-be soprano Lise Davidsen, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's passionate interpretation of the score and Verdi's driving, intense compositions - "movie music" in the best sense, foreshadowing and underscoring scenic emotion. 

Listen to the ominous three notes right at the beginning of the overture, played by brass and bassoons:

Now, John Williams' Darth Vader theme from "Star Wars":

Like a good police detective, I say, "Coincidence? I don't think so!" Of course, after the three notes, the themes go in different directions, a heavy militaristic march from Williams and, from Verdi, the violins entering with an anxious, jittery theme. 

Solomon Howard and Lise Davidsen
 as the Marquis and Leonora
Photo: Karen Almond/MetOpera
Treliński dramatizes the overture, so we see a statuesque woman, Leonora (Davidsen), in a gorgeous magenta evening gown 
pacing in and out of the "Hotel Calatrava," nervously tossing a cigarette away. As Boris Kudlička's trifold set revolves, she walks into the hotel's ballroom, where her birthday party is setting up and the henchmen of her father, the Marquis of Calatrava (Solomon Howard) are giving him a half-Nazi salute, then into his office next to the ballroom.

We soon see the source of her distress: her lover, Don Alvaro (Brian Jagde) climbs through the window, eager to spirit her away. The original story (published in 1835) says he is of South American Native heritage, but in our 21st-century eyes, his being a man of color is no reason why the two should not be together. 

This "Forza" is set in a modern time, but this, friends, is not a modern story. The Marquis discovers the two and violently opposes the match, declaring that Alvaro is beneath Leonora, that she has obviously been seduced and a marriage with him ("the baseness of your origins") will bring disgrace on her family. Alvaro protests and, to demonstrate his worthy intentions, throws his gun at the Marquis' feet. It accidentally discharges, killing Leonora's father. 

Brian Jagde as Don Alvaro
Photo:Karen Almond/MetOpera
This is the terrible event that propels the hand of fate for all the characters. Leonora's brother, Don Carlo (Igor Golovatenko) swears vengeance. Leonora, poor girl, is so consumed with guilt at being the unwitting cause of her father's death that she seeks out a religious refuge in order to do penance. Alvaro flees, wanders the country and joins the army as war sweeps across the land. Don Carlo pursues both, with 
a determined rage that echoes a Sicilian vendetta. 

The cinematic flow of the action was enhanced by Projection Designer Bartek Macias' moody scene-opening videos showing such scenes as soldiers marching through snow and  Leonora driving through the rain.
Davidsen has, up to now, been known for roles in the German repertoire, such as Elsa in Die Meistersinger. She did not disappoint in her first Italian role. Her commanding yet beautifully rounded tone, seemingly effortless projection and dynamic control received several ovations during the performance. For example, in Act IV, Leonora, completely broken in spirit, asks God for peace. In the aria "Pace, pace, mio Dio," Davidsen spun out a high B flat so that the note floated through the house on pure wings of magic. 

Lise Davidsen as Leonora
Photo:Karen Almond/MetOpera
All the principals meshed well in this cast. Jagde's ringing tenor and passionate acting gave Alvaro the same emotional strength as Leonora. Golovatenko's baritone matched Jagde in their three sizzling duets. Howard's majestic bass brought dignity and a sense of cruelty to the dual roles of the Marquis and Padre Guardiano, the abbot of the monastery where Leonora is to live in seclusion.

It sounds like an unrelentingly grim tale, but the depth of emotion and constant action are enthralling. The march of destiny progresses inexorably from the elegant hotel of Act I through scenes of army camps, prison-like enclosures and decadent clubs to a final scene in a bombed-out, gutted train station that reminded me of another apocalyptic movie - "Escape from New York." In "Forza," there's no escape.