The Morality of War: La Forza del Destino at English National Opera

Verdi – La Forza del Destino

Donna Leonora – Tamara Wilson

Don Carlo – Anthony Michaels-Moore

Don Alvaro – Gwyn Hughes Jones

Il Marchese di Calatrava – Robert Winslade Anderson

Padre Guardiano – James Creswell

Preziosilla – Rinat Shaham

Fra Melitone – Andrew Shore

Curra – Clare Presland

Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Mark Wigglesworth.

Stage director – Calixto Bieito

English National Opera, Coliseum, London.  Monday, November 9th, 2015.

English National Opera has certainly been in the headlines over the past few months following management upheaval and funding issues.  It should be more than possible for a metropolitan area and major tourist destination the size of London to sustain two leading opera companies.  Yet despite the lower levels of the theatre being very full tonight, both upper balconies were surprisingly empty, especially given that this was the first night of a very high profile production.  I often mention how I would wish ENO would change its policy of singing all of its shows in English.  This is surely an outdated notion harking back to the days before almost 40% of the city’s population was born overseas, before surtitles, before access to recordings that meant the majority of the public learned the work in the original, and before the internationalization and truly global nature of opera casting came to reality.  Moreover, for me it’s a question of vocal colour; we lose so much of the distinct sound of the music when it’s performed in translation however singable tonight’s seemed.  This was especially regrettable given the strength of some of the performances this evening.

Company © ENO/Robert Workman
Company © ENO/Robert Workman

For this production of Forza Calixto Bieito chose to set the work during the Spanish Civil War and this was a setting that worked particularly well.  This was perhaps a more understated production than we have become used to from this director but it was one that had genuine impact.  Bieito brought together influences from art and film to create a work that meditated on the horror of war, fascism and the complicity of religion in sustaining these.  This was a society where knowledge was not treasured – the chorus at one point ripping up books, at another murdering those who had transgressed in some way.  Their costumes were uniform and the chorus stood in serried ranks unwilling not to conform.  When they let their hair down, they did so to dance and celebrate the tarantella in Act 3 only to be interrupted by Fra Melitone.  Whereas so often this scene is played for laughs, here it had a genuine impact because Bieito took it seriously with the priest imposing his view of morality on the public.  Likewise, Preziosilla was seen as a dominating character, dressed in black, there to enforce strict morality and murder those who were different.

James Creswell, Tamara Wilson © ENO/Robert Workman
James Creswell, Tamara Wilson © ENO/Robert Workman

Indeed, the religion as practised here was highly physical and brutal to its adherents.  As Leonora arrived at the monastery, her hair was cut by the Padre Guardiano, she was made to wear a crown of barbed wire and clearly self-flagellation was also part of the ritual.  I found this a deeply troubling image, the fact that Leonora so deeply needed help yet the only way she could get it was by submitting herself to pain.  Her ‘vergine degli angeli’ was incredibly moving as a result.  There was also a wonderful coup de théâtre at the start of ‘pace, pace’ where Leonora emerges from darkness as she sings her first ‘pace’ and slowly comes into focus – the effect was magical.

Company © ENO/Robert Workman
Company © ENO/Robert Workman

I did find the performances of the central gentlemen perhaps a little stiff in comparison but they were certainly honestly sung and acted.  In a way, this show marks a progression in Bieito’s style as he incorporates even more video (Sarah Derendinger) into the show that has previously been the case.  At one point a plane is seen, at another images of marching soldiers accompany the crowd scenes.  Later we see images of dead animals redolent of Picasso’s Guernica projected onto the sets.  Sets (Rebecca Ringst) are haunting, creating images of bombed out villages in addition to the home of a well-to-do army officer.  At one point the flag of the Francoist period was waved, which led me to wonder how the staging would be received were it to be performed at the Liceu.  Bieito portrays a period that is still present in living memory and whose wounds are still apparent in the society of the Spanish state even today.

Tamara Wilson, Chorus of English National Opera © ENO/Robert Workman
Tamara Wilson, Chorus of English National Opera © ENO/Robert Workman

Musically, there was some very fine singing on display.  Tamara Wilson certainly announced herself as a major new Verdian talent.  This young US soprano has already made some notable debuts at the Met and at the Liceu for example and this was her London, England debut.  The voice carries well and has a bright, open top.  The tone has a silvery core, but she can soften it nicely, varying the use of vibrato to add more colours to the sound.  Her phrasing was effortless and deeply stylish.  Her ‘vergine degli angeli’ was magical, beautifully phrased, wonderfully floated.  ‘Pace, pace’ culminated in a fantastic high B-flat.  She is certainly an affecting actress and a very classy singer, one to watch undoubtedly.  Rinat Shaham’s Preziosilla reinforced the impression that she really is an outstanding actress, completely encapsulating Bieito’s vision for her character.  She is also a superb singer.  ‘Rataplan’ was dispatched with ease, even incorporating the trills on the Gs in the score that I don’t think I have ever heard sung before.  She also negotiated the exceptionally tricky tessitura with ease, making it sound like the easiest thing in the world.  Very impressive.

Rinat Shaham © ENO/Robert Workman
Rinat Shaham © ENO/Robert Workman

Gwyn Hughes Jones doesn’t have the biggest voice for Alvaro and the sound is on the reedy side.  He does however use it tastefully, never forcing the voice and singing with an easy legato and ringing high notes.  His act 3 set piece was sung with the exact combination of wistfulness and generosity it needed.  His was a more than serviceable account of the role that inspired admiration for his beauty of tone and willingness to use his instrument intelligently.  I’m afraid I found Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Carlo coarse and pushed.  The act 4 duet was poorly tuned as he pushed the voice so much that pitch became distorted.  He phrased with eloquence but it felt rough around the edges.

Gwyn Hughes Jones, Anthony Michaels-Moore © ENO/Robert Workman
Gwyn Hughes Jones, Anthony Michaels-Moore © ENO/Robert Workman

In the supporting cast, James Creswell was a fabulously resonant Padre Guardiano.  The voice full and rich and carries easily.  The top isn’t quite as integrated to the rest as it could be but this can certainly come with time.  Andrew Shore brought his customary excellent diction to Melitone but the tone is now dry.  He can however still dominate a stage when required.  The other supporting singers were perfectly adequate.

Rinat Shaham, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Chorus of English National Opera © ENO/Robert Workman
Rinat Shaham, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Chorus of English National Opera © ENO/Robert Workman

The ENO Chorus sang extremely well, cementing their position as the best opera chorus in London.  Blend was good, with some excellent singing from the gentlemen in ‘attenti al gioco, attenti’.  Ensemble, especially given that this was a first night, was very impressive.  The orchestra also played well, there were a few horn fluffs early on but they warmed up quickly to play with string tone of genuine depth and warmth, fine brass playing and tight ensemble.  Mark Wigglesworth led a reading that was notable for being unobtrusive rather than barnstorming.  He always gave his singers space to cut through the texture and conducted sensitively.  Tempi felt a little on the slow side and I would have liked a bit more vigour in a few places.  Otherwise, it certainly pointed to an improvement in standards and bodes well at the start of his tenure.

Tamara Wilson © ENO/Robert Workman Conductor - Mark Wigglesworth Director - Calixto Bieito Set Designer - Rebecca Ringst Costume Designer - Ingo Krügler Lighting Designer - Tim Mitchell Video Designer - Sarah Derndinger Translator - Jeremy Sams Don Alvaro - Gwyn Hughes Jones Donna Leonara di Vargas - Tamara Wilson Don Carlo di Vargas - Anthony Michaels-Moore Padre Guardiano - James Creswell Fra Melitone - Andrew Shore Presiosilla - Rinat Shaham Marquis of Calatrava - Matthew Best Curra - Clare Presland Trabuco - Adrian Dwyer Alcade - Nicholas Folwell
Tamara Wilson © ENO/Robert Workman

This perhaps wasn’t one of Bieito’s most visceral stagings and the impact wasn’t for me quite as great as his Turandot which I saw only 10 days ago in Belfast.  It is however the work of someone who has clearly based his work in a reading of the text and is certainly the most theatrically successful of any Forza I have seen.  It is a highly cogent and logical reading which sees the work afresh as a story of war and the malicious combined influence of religion and fascism on society.  I found it a highly convincing staging and it was well performed by a cast who gave it everything they had tonight and highlighted some major talents.


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