Mary Elizabeth Williams
Keyboards of hyperbole are clattered away every day on shows but rarely does something come along that is sheer theatre, filled with vocal and musical excellence. This is the Welsh National Opera La Forza del Destino extravaganza. With one prince in the audience (the company’s patron Charles) and one on the stage battling totally pointlessly against his destiny (oh my) this was one powerful piece of stagecraft. It takes what many regard as a difficult opera to stage and weaves a spell of reality melded with fantasy, historic references (Spanish fascism, First World War trenches) and copious amounts of absurdity to allow conductor Carlo Rizzi and his fine cast work their own magic on Verdi’s score.
Fresh from their clutch at the Wales Theatre Awards with a hat trick of trophies, Welsh National Opera is already benchmarking for theatre production as well as music in 2018. It will not be to everyone’s taste, David Pountney is nothing if not brave, bold and confident in his own vision and that shines through in this rich and dark reading of the work. The story starts with PEACE and dissolves into WAR. Just as Verdi’s drama in this blood-soaked period when Europe was (again) ripped apart by the War of the Austrian Succession was epic, another rather over-used word in Welsh theatre, so too is Pountney’s own ambition. From the butterfly’s wing that starts the mechanised wheel of time (and progress) in motion, the manifestation of Fate beats time, the gun is dropped and the accidentally discharged bullet ends in the chest of the heroine’s father. Destiny is now unstoppable whether you are a Christian or a Turk, a “half-cast” Inca prince, a Spaniard, Italian or German, a soldier, priest or civilian.
Mary Elizabeth Williams and Miklós Sebestyé
Mary Elizabeth Williams and Gwyn Hughes Jones
Fate is always present as an angel of death, a temptress magician, a barrel of an artillery cannon straddling war cheer leader. This is one wild show but it makes total sense and combined with gorgeous singing and playing has the audience in silence for three hours and then swept over the singers and orchestra in waves of applause and cries of bravo. Yes, the reception for Pountney and his designer team was less loud but I suspect it will take some time for this mammoth undertaking to be fully absorbed. The closing of the first half of the evening, where Leonore drags herself into the secret hermit’s sanctuary, overseen by crown of thorn, bloody drenched monks in horrific costumes was an image to retain for many, many years. The other image, of Fate wearing an Inca mask from death a cult society that was wiped out by the civilizing Old World (and its diseases) astride a battlefield cannon wreaking death on that all-conquering civilisation, speaks on so many levels. Of course, the whole approach is heightened theatrical extravagance and excess but delivered with mastery.
Justina Gringyté and Luis Cansino
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Luis Cansino
We had the horrors of war, the hypocrisy of the bloated Church, the self-flagellation self-doubt of the truly pious, the mechanised slaughter of First World War battle scenes, a theatre of the absurd and macabre commedia dell’arte side-show with the priest reduced to smoking a fag at the back of the pop-up stage as his flock has gone off to booze and womanise. Yes, there are very occasional moments of lightness and humour, such as Alun Rhys-Jenkins’ Mastro Trabuco and Fra Malitone. This is always within the context of the theme and always dark. There are glitches. The dramatic impact of pulling back gauzes to reveal images and people behind them are lost as you can see straight through them anyway. You can also see the characters moving around into position at the back of the stage as they prepare to make another dramatic entrance which again spoils the impact. There is also a great deal of use of moving screens to change and create spaces and change the locations which, while enabling a fast and easy flow, does occasionally jar. Whether the use of the bed chamber on certain occasions is suggesting a psychological aspect to the entire drama is unclear as this does occur at the denouement, although the shed blood is indeed always there and everyone gets their hands dirty, les mains sales. This is a notoriously difficult opera to present. The use of video throughout the drama was both aesthetically pleasing but also necessary to bring some sense of the passing of time, although the broad sweep of passing years is difficult to grasp in such a fast-moving work, and also reinforcing the relationship between events and the play of Fate before which all unfurled. The credits mention fettFilm but whether they made the video or designed it is unclear.
Gwyn Hughes Jones
Luis Cansino and Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Gwyn Hughes Jones, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Luis Cansino and (back) Miklós Sebestyé
Luis Casino and Justina Gringyté
Donald Maxwell and the chorus
Mary Elizabeth Williams
Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones is strong and secure with flashes of emotional wonder as the half-Inca prince Don Alvaro, the freedom fighter who has lost his birthright kingdom but also his heart to Spain in the form of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora, the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava who has forbidden the relationship. From the nightmare sequence where she foresees the bullet piercing a chest to her own death, she is quite frankly tremendous. A warm sensuous voice with brilliance and intelligence. This singer is a great jewel in WNO’s crown and deserves the audience adulation. Her brother who hunts them down for vengeance is Luis Cansino as Don Carlo di Vargas and completes a trio of powerhouses and who is rarely off the stage. The wise and cynical comedy from Donald Maxwell as Fra Melitone is lipsmacking and the Preziosilla from Justina Gringyté chilling and cold, elegant and refined. The fact that she was also clearly the maid and not a separate character worked perfectly, with more overt manipulation of the characters (like the cadaver puppets in the religious show already mentioned). Miklós Sebestyé was a beautifully toned Padre Guardiano (and Il Marchese di Calatrava) whose faith although troubled contrasted with the worldliness of Fra Melitone.
The music? Well, with Carlo Rizzi in control this was glorious from harp delicacy to violent passion and the huge chorus in magnificent form. It has passages that sadly most of us know as advertisement music yet and it may not be Verdi’s finest work for the chorus but it contains much to thrill and delight us all and keep those musicologists on their toes with novelty and surprises.
Choreographer Michael Spenceley and Lighting Designer Fabrice Kebour deserve a bravo or two. With that niggle of requiring a very active stage crew requirement on stage, the Raimund Bauer sets were effective while costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca had clearly let rip.
The story is a switch back ride of dramatic had spinning proportions but this production just about keeps us on the rails. Is it faultless, of course not. Is it hugely entertaining, musically splendid and world-class, absolutely.
Mary Elizabeth Williams
Further performances at Wales Millennium Centre, February 10 and 17 and touring including The Birmingham Hippodrome, March 6, The Bristol Hippodrome April 14 Venue Cymru, Llandudno April 21
Main image: Justina Gringyté
Images: Richard Hubert
Reviewer supported by Wales Critics Fund