Monday, December 23, 2013

Bayerische Staatsoper München, La forza del destino

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
Premiere on December 22nd, 2013

Il Marchese di Calatrava / Padre Guardiano - Vitalij Kowalijow 
Donna Leonora - Anja Harteros
Don Carlo di Vargas - Ludovic 
Don Alvaro - Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla - Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone - Renato Girolami
Curra - Heike Grötzinger
Un alcade - Christian Rieger
Mastro Trabuco - Francesco Petrozzi
Un chirurgo - Rafał Pawnuk

Conductor - Asher Fisch 
Director - Martin Kušej
Sets - Martin Zehetgruber 
Costumes - Heidi Hackl 
Lighting - Reinhard Traub
Chorus - Sören Eckhoff

Let's face it, the plot of La forza del destino is not really very credible.  
The creaking, clunky action is driven less by Destiny with a capital D than by Hair-raisingly Hammy with a capital H.

But this is opera, after all, and Italian 19th century opera at that. So we know when we enter the theatre not to expect gritty fly-on-the-wall realism. 
We hang up our credulity with our coats at the door.

The problem for directors nowadays is whether to take Verdi's Mills and Boon-style libretto at face value and tell it straight, or try to fashion some deeper meaning out of it and make it just that little bit more credulous for modern-day audiences. 

Despite what its critics say, that is the basic -- and well-intentioned -- premise of most Regietheater: to find a way into the opera's often ludicrous and labyrinthine plots and make them that tiny bit more believable.

Whether we the audience really want or need that, or whether directors succeed is a different matter.
But therein lies the rub of much modern music theatre and the ferocious Glaubenskrieg that has long raged between supporters of so-called "traditionalist" and "modernist" stagings.

Kušej is one such exponent of Regietheater. And an intelligent and thought-provoking one he is, too. So there was never any chance he would simply re-tell Verdi's far-fetched little story at face value for his star-studded new production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

It was utterly predictable, then, that the city's ultra-conservative premiere-night audience -- who seemed unfazed at first and accepted the sleek and modern-looking Act 1 without a peep -- would take offence at his updating of the story to contemporary times with its imagery of modern-day warfare (Iraq? Balkans?) and terrorist attacks. And the boos started in Act 3 when the army's prisoners are tortured, whipped and chained like inmates of Abu Ghraib.

Sometimes all it takes is a different perspective. And the stark, visually arresting sets by Kušej's long-term collaborator Martin Zehetgruber offer just that: most striking of all in Act 3 where we're looking down onto the bombed-out building interior from a bird's eye view.

It's a highly cinematic moment.
But with imagery so specific -- and therefore so ultimately outdate-able -- it is arguable whether 
Kušej's staging will outlive anything but a one or two revivals. 

(But few new stagings nowadays are really built to last anyway, so maybe that's beside the point.)

Kušej's decision to re-tell the story in the head of Leonora, who seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing her father accidentally shot by her lover Alvaro, is intriguing. And it pays dividends if you let it.

The first indication of 
Kušej's reinterpretation of the plot comes from the dinner table at which all the characters are seated during the overture, but which remains where it is during all four acts.

(In a nice little aside, too, it is Curra, Leonora's confidante, who tips the Marchese off to the lovers' secret tryst.)

In Act 2, the body of the Marchese who has been shot in the previous scene remains onstage while Leonora cowers in terror under the table.

A more significant signal comes from the decision to double-cast the Marchese as Padre Guardiano.

At first this seemed to be a way to better show off the huge talent of Russian bass Vitalij Kowaljow. But 
Kušej seems to be saying that in her state of shock and grief, Leonora is idealizing her dead brutish bigot of a father and turning him into the caring and loving figure she would like him to be who offers refuge and comfort.

Alvaro, too, is not the slightly greasy small-time gangster he first appears in Act 1, but a more courageous Glaubenskrieger who -- in Leonora's imagination -- valiantly saves the nerdy snitch who is her brother Carlo. 
Carlo has similarly been transformed into a soldier so that the two adversaries can do battle over her honour,
The whole Mills and Boon-style story is, in fact, the romantic imaginings of a young woman who, in her cloistered, religious upbringing secretly devoured cheap love novels.

Finally, in the last scene, in her fevered hallucinations, the three men in Leonora's life -- her father, her brother and Alvaro -- are symbolically brought together and it is the heroine herself who dies among a huge pile of oversized crucifixes.

Repeated viewings are probably needed to judge whether 
Kušej's concept is ultimately successful.
But at first encounter, it seemed a lot more interesting and intriguing than the knee-jerk boo-ers and those who harp continuously on about the composer's "true intentions" would have us a believe.

Unfortunately, with a dream cast such as 
Kušej and conductor Asher Fisch have assembled, getting a ticket for a second performance will be nigh-on impossible.

Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros are of course the big crowd-pullers -- and rightly so -- as the unhappy lovers.
They have already earned their spurs as great Verdians in last season's Il Trovatore.
And there can't be any other singers currently on the planet who could sing Forza better than they do, b
oth making their role debuts. 
Harteros's soprano, so ravishing and creamy but with a solid core of steel, glints and shines with jaw-dropping beauty. 
Kaufmann's tenor, in the flesh, seems darker and more burnished than on his recent Verdi album. And he seems much more natural and at ease in Verdi than in some of the Wagner roles he's been trying out on disc.
He also cuts a fitter and trimmer figure on stage, too, as if he has been working out.

Tézier is every bit their vocal match as Carlo.
The French baritone, very impressive recently as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor in Paris, was astonishingly convincing as he transformed from Leonora's bookish younger brother into fanatical avenger of the Marchese's death.

Kowaljow's dark, balsamic bass made the Marchese more human, almost likeable and was all the more fatherly as Padre Guardiano.

Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla and Renato Girolami as Fra Melitone rounded off the superb cast. 

With so much high-voltage vocal power on stage, Asher Fisch, conducting Verdi for the first time in Munich, seemed a little star-struck and left little real impression, even if the Staatsoper orchestra were in fine form. 
Fisch's neat and tidy conducting lacked real bite, but perhaps he will loosen up as the series progresses.


  1. Thank you for your comments! I know that I have to avoid all stagings by this director. I like Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and other great opera singers, and and I utterly dislike this kind of "fashioning of deeper meanings". Why is violence "deeper"? Shocking the audience is deeper???Conservative or not, everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion. If opera wants to compete with cinema, I'm not really interested to watch that particular performance.
    I hate this kind of staging, you like it and also publish info about, it's ok. I'd like to ask this: why don't such directors stage opera performances where the singers are not so well-known and appreciated? If you stage any opera with less known singers what will happen? The performances will not be sold out, or maybe tickets will become cheaper. A good thing for those who want to see them over and over.
    Thanks again for your comments. I'm even happier I bought tickets for Winterreise liederabend. No staging there, just Mr.Kaufmann's great voice and talent.

    1. And thank you for your comment.
      I don't think Kušej is out to shock audiences deliberately.
      And there's violence in any number of opera libretti which is not inserted by directors.
      But you're perfectly right. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
      That, surely, is the wonderful thing about opera as an art form.
      I'm sure Kaufmann's Winterreise will be excellent. Enjoy!