Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Guns, Germs, and Steel

June 14, 2008

Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla and Carlos Alvarez as Don Carlo
Photo : Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger 2008

La Forza del destino is one of those operas that I seem to enjoy the concept of much more than the actual experience of it. Or at least I always get excited about the opportunity to see it, but then when it happens I think, “what’s the big deal?” Act II is ridiculously long and boring. There often seems little continuity between the multiple scenes and characters. I guess I continue to hold out that it’s not the opera itself, but the productions I’ve seen so far – I just haven’t met the right one yet. And so I attended a performance of the Vienna State Opera’s new production of Verdi’s work tonight with the usual anticipation. And while I was still disappointed, this was probably the best argument for the opera I’ve yet to hear.

I give the primary credit for this outcome to director David Pountney’s controversial but highly effective staging that involves a fair amount of video elements. It also involves a lot of women dressed as Vegas-style cowgirls with short-shorts, boots, guns and bright red hats. They represent Preziosilla and her followers urging young men on to war in Italy. Yes, it’s far-fetched but visually striking and effective in making Pountney’s (and perhaps Verdi’s) point about the bitter harvest of rousing calls to take up arms. The video elements, which are presented initially on a scrim during the overture and repeated during various choruses and arias, recount the seminal event of the opera, the accidental shooting death of the Marchese di Calatrava. Like Verdi, Pountney is trying to keep the character’s underlying motivations in the audience’s mind in a convoluted work where it can be quite easy to forget. A pistol falls, spinning and then hits the ground. As it discharges we follow the computer-animated bullet on its ricochet course until it strikes the chest of a man with the requisite splater of blood. Gruesome it my be, but this is kind of a gruesome opera.

The problems unfortunately have noting to do with the colorful, vibrant sets and intelligent staging. This Forza is an embarrassment of riches in the casting department with Carlos Álvarez as Don Carlo, Nina Stemme as Leonora, and Salvatore Licitra as Alvaro. Who’d have guessed that the strongest player on the team would be Álvarez? Stemme seems miscast here with too much steel and not enough grit. Licitra is Licitra – close, but never quite delivering what’s promised. Nadia Krasteva wisely elects to have fun with Preziosilla and though some of her second aria ends up more shouted than sung, it works to good effect in this context. The dancers and chorus looked like they were out of practice with moves that were probably more solid when the production premiered earlier this year. One other nice change from those performances in my mind is the substitution of the musical leadership of Marco Armiliato for that of Zubin Mehta. Armiliato brought out an accomplished and thrilling account of Verdi’s score and will lead all the performances of this summertime spate of Forzas as well as the Don Carlo revival that will start on Sunday with René Pape and Thomas Hampson.

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