Verdi – La Forza del destino
Donna Leonora – María José Siri
Don Carlo – Markus Brück
Don Alvaro – Russell Thomas
Il Marchese di Calatrava – Stephen Bronk
Padre Guardiano – Marko Mimica
Preziosilla – Agunda Kulaeva
Fra Melitone – Misha Kiria
Curra – Amber Fasquelle
Un alcade – Pádraic Rowan
Mastro Trabuco – Michael Kim
Un chirurgo – Timothy Newton
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Jordi Bernàcer.
Stage director – Frank Castorf.
Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Sunday, September 8th, 2019.
Tonight was my first encounter with the work of Frank Castorf. Castorf is a major figure on the German spoken theatre scene and his notable operatic excursion, a 2013 Ring in Bayreuth, has now achieved near-legendary status among Wagnerians. This Forza del destino is Castorf’s first Verdi staging, and for this opening new production of the new operatic season, the Deutsche Oper Berlin assembled a very promising cast under the direction of the Valencian conductor, Jordi Bernàcer.
Castorf’s sets his staging in the Spanish Civil War, for the first two acts, leading into the US-led liberation of Naples, Italy in World War Two for the second half of the evening. The set (Aleksandar Denić) revolves, giving us various views on the action, as well as varied locations including a church, a field hospital, or the home of the Marchese. Live action cameras, projected onto a large screen on the left of the stage, give various views of the action, at times magnifying the faces of the principals, at others sharing images from behind the set (such as injured soldiers being treated) or extracts from movies.
Castorf also adds additional layers onto the work through the addition of texts discussing life, Christ, the slaughter of aboriginal people in South America as well as death, used to break up the music and spoken by various members of the cast. Additionally, Castorf adds a further layer in the character of ‘Der Indio’, a Brazilian ‘Revuetänzer’, who gyrated acrobatically around the set in a diamante thong, seemingly a reflection of Leonora’s spirit.
There are certainly some clever touches in Castorf’s staging. The big Alvaro/Carlo confrontation in Act 3, takes place in front of a sign warning of the perils of venereal disease. While the monastery, was populated by shirtless men, in addition to the priests. Perhaps Castorf was making a point about the homoeroticism of army and clerical life; yet both of these feel underdeveloped and barely explored. Indeed, Castorf’s staging as a whole feels seriously problematic. The addition of the spoken texts holds up the action in a work that really doesn’t need any extra help in that respect. Not only do they draw attention from the main narrative, rather than enhancing it, they make the evening seem interminable – last night clocking in at just under four hours. Furthermore, the video also distracts more than it adds. Having a slow-motion view of the Alvaro/Marchese scene in sepia, broadcast on the screen, while the real thing played out in front of us, was most distracting. This isn’t to say that the principals were always overshadowed. There was a genuine electricity to Russell Thomas’ Alvaro and Markus Brück’s Carlo’s confrontation. Yet, Thomas had to sing his glorious scene, ‘La vita è inferno all’infelice … o tu che in seno agli angeli’, while barely lit, next to two soldiers holding Italian flags aloft and repetitively biting the air, while an extract from a movie played above him. That Thomas managed to hold his own among all of this is testament to his great artistry.
The audience reaction was extraordinary. There were a few isolated boos and whistles during the spoken interjections, but they exploded when Ronni Maciel’s ‘Indio’ repeated his monologue, an extract from Heiner Müller’s Der Auftrag, first in German and then in Brazilian Portuguese with a Carioca accent, or when Marko Mimica’s Padre Guardiano and Amber Fasquelle’s Curra acted out a scene in English from Curzio Malaparte’s Skin about Americans and Christ. The booing and yelling seemed to go on for a considerable amount of time, with audience members yelling ‘Ruhe’ or ‘wir wollen Verdi’ or ‘ich muss nach Hause’, peppered with some isolated ‘bravos’. That the cast was able to continue, despite the overwhelming reaction coming from the auditorium, is testament to their enormous resilience.
The delivery of the texts had clearly been well rehearsed, but I wish Castorf had spent the time instead working on more detailed direction of the singers and the musical numbers. Far too often they were standing and delivering to the front, and the chorus was frequently parked on stage (although they did bust some impressive moves at times). Ultimately, despite the seemingly radical premise, what Castorf gives is is actually a rather conventional staging. Remove the dialogue and the video and ultimately it would be like pretty much any other Forza.
Musically, there was much to admire. Thomas’ Alvaro was spectacularly good. His tenor is in terrific shape. Right from his first entry he raised the temperature on stage immeasurably, with his ardently Italianate tone and wonderfully instinctive phrasing. He sang his ‘o tu che in seno agli angeli’ with delicacy, able to pull right back on the tone and also fill the house with well-placed, ringing high notes. Most impressive. Brück was an implacable Carlo, the voice absolutely firm throughout, the top solid and completely integrated. He sang with a decent legato, phrasing with long-lined eloquence, and his big solo scene was dispatched with compelling authority.
María José Siri’s Leonora took a while to find her best form. Perhaps due to first night nerves, her intonation was problematic, spending most of the first couple of acts under the note. Perhaps it was the near riot that pushed her to up her game, but by the time she reached ‘pace mio dio’ she sang with increased authority, her tuning improved, and she capped the number with a tremendous high B-flat. Throughout, Siri sang with scrupulous attention to dynamics and phrasing. Her Leonora was less chaste and much more sexually aware than we often see. Agunda Kulaeva’s Preziosilla was sung in a plummy mezzo that turned the corners well, but with diction that made it hard to discern which language she was singing in.
In the remainder of the cast, Marko Mimica gave us a Padre Guardiano of great lyricism in his warm, handsome bass. Misha Kiria was a scene-stealing Fra Melitone. The voice is huge and his Italian impeccable. Definitely a name to watch. Jeremy Bines’ chorus had a good night, making a big sound and kept ensemble water-tight in the ‘Rataplan’. Bernàcer led the house band in a reading that paid full attention to Verdi’s phrasing and accents, bringing out an interplay between the orchestral melodies that I hadn’t previously been aware of. The orchestra responded to him with superb playing – not a note out of place all night. Tempi were always sensible, never rushed, and attack was precise.
This Forza is undoubtedly a show that provokes a reaction – and that it most certainly did with some extraordinary scenes in the audience. And it must be said that there’s something really positive to see so many people discussing an opera production both in the theatre and on social media. When Castorf’s Ring was first premiered in Bayreuth, it was heavily booed, but later came to be seen as a seminal staging. In putting my head on the block, I’m not convinced that this Forza will have the same future. Instead of allowing the work to speak on its own terms and illuminating it afresh, Castorf smothers it under extraneous layers of text and film that sap it of dramatic life. Musically, though, it’s well worth seeing, for the gentlemen in particular, for Bernàcer’s visionary conducting, and for the remarkable quality of the orchestral playing.
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