San Francisco’s “La Forza del Destino” at SFO

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Guest Review by Janos Gereben


SAN FRANCISCO:
This is big. Really big. Colossal. Big voices, enormous sets, an improbably loud orchestra, Wagner-length Verdi, a conductor like a dervish, a tenor with the largest pair of lungs… all big. Perhaps not all good, true, but – to repeat – BIG. Haven’t heard this much volume since frequenting the Bolshoi when it was still following the Stalinist esthetic.

Opera is larger than life, but the new San Francisco production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is larger than opera. Depending on one’s point of view, it’s ridiculously grand or greatly ridiculous. But here’s the strange thing: out of all that big sound and big hair and floor-length black and white costumes, and so on, two items remain in memory, both "small" – concertmaster Kay Stern’s heavenly solo, and the finale, the trio almost whispering, the concluding chords dissolving into silence. Less (and well done) is more, it seems.

This is the premiere of Philip Gossett’s revised edition of the opera’s 1869 Milan version, adding some 200 pages of "new" music, and restructuring the action in comparison with the St. Petersburg version, presented in San Francisco between 1933 and 1946.

The production also introduces a host of talent new to the city. On the podium: Nicola Luisotti, in his SF Opera debut, the instant darling of both the orchestra (the musicians tried to refuse standing up, to give him a solo bow, but you don’t get to vote when this man is in charge) and of the audience. Very Italian, very big, very passionate, totally irresistible. The Overture thundered Beethovenesquely (with Rossini rhythms), and the sound rattled the rafters for four hours. (Oh, yes, this edition is near the length of Die Walküre! Big. Long. Too long, with some musically and dramatically gratuitous scenes.)

Did Luisotti’s band-on-steroids silence the singers? Not at all. Everybody just had to sing louder, much louder… and they did! Loudest of the loud: Vladimir Kuzmenko, in his local debut, as Don Alvaro. Oh, my! A really big voice, in two gears: piano or fortissimo. The burly Ukrainian doesn’t sound at all like the "typical Slavic tenor," with high pitch and thin voice. Quite to the contrary, it’s a broad, forward-placed assault on space, fairly rattling the War Memorial, making one reach for the ears in a protective mode. Not very "operatic" or especially musical, Kuzmenko reminds one of a leather-lung’d sergeant from the country, in front of the Red Army Chorus, singing in a manly, big way.

Zeljko Lucic’s Don Carlo and Orlin Anastassov’s Padre Guardiano kept up the volume, but contributed much finer musical values. Adler Fellow Lucas Meachem’s Melitone fit right in. Jill Grove’s Preziosilla – a shiny plastic coat half-covering a red harlot outfit, the color matching her lopsided mohawk – was both powerful and musical.

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Andrea Gruber, the Leonora, had a great start, keeping up with Kuzmenko in Act 1, but after her long absence (until the second half of Act 3), she returned not quite ready for "Pace, pace, mio Dio," which was adequate, but not nearly the be-all of the work as in the past in the War Memorial. There were Muzio, Rethberg, and Milanov before my time, and then the treasured memories of Mitchell, Tomowa-Sintow and – above all – Price, who first performed the role here. The problem might have been with stage director Ron Daniels’ unconscionable move to make Gruber run up and down several times on stairs halfway to the stars, or, to be more precise, the aerial perch representing – what else? – her cave.

Before seeing any of Daniels’ direction, it’s important to read his article in the program, including the following description of Forza – "a masterpiece of astonishing coherence from a genius with both harrowing vision and unfettered imagination." Clearly, the man knows his opera, although his credits are in the theater. Coherence? In Forza?

Against expectations thus moderated, the actual stage action (except for making the Leonora run up and down just when she needed her breathing for something else) was not all that bad, although why pilgrims would walk through the top of a banquet table could raise an eyebrow or two.

Roland Aeschlimann’s stage design is, yes, big, and often puzzling. The opening scene’s enormous grill gate/window, the final scene’s stage-high three-legged cross of a 20th century tank spike, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s all-black and all-white costumes (at the end, white-wrapped, mummified bodies littering the stage) were all interesting, if not particularly relevant to the opera – except under the general heading of "war."

Manfred Voss’ lighting design helped greatly in the strange battle scene, the stage fog descending from the flies, projected camouflage background absorbing the camouflaged chorus. Speaking of the chorus, this was redemption time after the poor performance in Norma. Although Daniels managed to inconvenience and befuddle Ian Robertson’s chorus, the singers did spectacularly well, individually and together. Luisotti’s bold and forceful conducting was a major factor in the fine chorus work this time.

CAST:
Donna Leonora di Vargas: Andrea Gruber
Preziosilla: Jill Grove
Don Alvaro: Vladimir Kuzmenko*
Don Carlo di Vargas: Zeljko Lucic
Padre Guardiano: Orlin Anastassov*
Fra Melitone: Lucas Meachem

PRODUCTION:
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti*
Director: Ron Daniels
Set Designer: Roland Aeschlimann*
Costume Designer: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting Designer: Manfred Voss
Choreographer: Robert Moses*
Dramaturg: Wolfgang Willaschek
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera debut
Cast, programs and schedules are subject to change

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