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BWW Reviews: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (THE FORCE OF DESTINY) Is a Thrilling Night of Grand Opera

Reviewed Saturday 12th October 2013

Giuseppe Verdi's opera, filled with powerful emotions, has not been seen in Adelaide for over forty years, and this stupendous production leaves one wondering why that is so. From the opening notes of the overture to La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), we are alerted to the fact that this is a work filled with ominous portents.

The revealing of the set and a tableaux of the cast, that drew a round of applause for the stunning visual effect, with an enormous skull upstage and the stunningly imposing figure of mezzo-soprano, Milijana Nikolic, as Preziosilla, the gypsy, shuffling and spreading out her Tarot cards downstage, reinforces the idea of destiny, or fate, being something that cannot be escaped. She effectively becomes Fate, giving destiny a face and form, a corporeal presence. The makeup tells us of the future, indicating that they are all dead to begin with, also suggesting that the war that is a background for the story will take many whom we will never know.

Normally a minor role, Preziosilla appears in many scenes in this production, consulting her cards as the action between the other characters plays out before her. They are oblivious to her presence, as though only we are able to observe her tracking, or perhaps guiding the paths of their lives towards their ultimate destinies.

The story, reduced to its basic premise, is that the half-Incan, Don Alvaro, plans to elope with Leonora, the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava. The Marquis catches them in the act of decamping, and Alvaro surrenders his pistol, throwing it to the ground. The pistol, unfortunately, goes off, accidentally killing the Marquis. The lovers run, pursued by her brother, Don Carlo, seeking revenge on both of them.

There is, of course, much more to the story, the opera having four acts and running three hours, with the interval between acts two and three. The pair gets separated and she becomes a hermit thinking that he has abandoned her, whilst he, thinking that she has died, joins the army under an assumed name at the bidding of Preziosilla. Following her advice, Don Carlo does likewise and, by a strange twist of fate, they become close friends. Only when Alvaro is badly wounded and likely to die, does Carlo realise the truth about his identity.

When he recovers, Alvaro escapes and becomes a monk, calling himself Father Raphael, at the same monastery that Leonora had approached to allow her to be a hermit in a cave in the hills nearby. So near, yet so far. Carlo eventually tracks down Alvaro and they fight, ending up outside the cave where Leonora lives in self exile. She hears the noise, sees them, and all is revealed. Alvaro has fatally wounded Carlo but, as the lovers are reunited, Carlo finds the strength to kill Leonora. In a changed ending, Alvaro does not throw himself off of a cliff. Instead he plunges his sword into the body of Christ on a huge crucifix.

This is an Opera Conference production, in which a number of Australian companies, including our State Opera of South Australia, pool their resources to create a work that is then presented by each company, using their own personnel. Originally directed by Tama Matheson, Netta Yashchin is the revival director for this production, and what a production it is. That opening scene, introducing us to the cast in silence while the overture is played, is the just the start of an amazing visual feast with Mark Thompson's set and costumes and the lighting design of Nigel Levings combining perfectly to create an almost fantasy world in which the action takes place. Matheson and Yashchin use this impressive backdrop to great advantage, giant Madonna, strange death-masked figures, and huge banks of candles included.

This, though, is not just about the visual splendour. This is an opera, and a Verdi opera at that, and so there is magnificent music to be heard, which brings me back, once again, to that overture and its beginning Fate motif, those three unison E notes in the brass. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra distinguishes itself right from this point until the final bar has been played. No doubt the inspired conducting of Verdi expert, Andrea Licata, had much to do with this. The singers could not have asked for better accompaniment that this marvellous orchestral playing.

Nicole Youl was riveting as Leonora, torn between her love for Alvaro, and that of another kind for her father and brother, confused and upset by her assumption that Alvaro had betrayed her, and abandoning the world for the life of a hermit. She gave a mighty performance, but illness got the better of her, or perhaps it was the curse that is supposedly attached to this opera.

During the first half, she realised that her voice was not going to cope, and that she would not be able to complete the performance, and so Queensland soprano, Lecia Robertson, took over for the second half of the evening. Her first aria drew forth huge applause and cries of "Bravo!" She carried on beautifully from where Youl had been forced to leave off, and was just as committed to the role, with a great understanding of the character.

Don Alvaro is sung by tenor, Rosario La Spina, a great favourite with Adelaide audiences for his numerous superb performances here. This performance has surely added to that fondness that we have for him, combining his rich tenor with an emotionally full characterisation.

Don Carlo is sung by baritone Michael Lewis, the anger and determination that carries Carlo ever onward evident in his performance, even when he realises that his best friend is the man he seeks, and forgets that friendship in an instant.

The powerful performances of La Spina and Lewis more than double in intensity in their scenes together, whether their characters are friends or mortal enemies at the time. There is a great rapport between these two that adds enormously to those interactions.

As the Marquis of Calatrava, bass, Steven Gallop is imposing, presenting a fine figure in his righteous indignation at finding his daughter in the act of eloping. It is rather a shame that his appearance is so brief.

When Leonora is about to elope she begins to weaken in her resolve, and her maid, Curra, supports her and convinces her to flee with Alvaro. Mezzo-soprano, Kate Bright, gives plenty of substance to this minor role, her Curra showing real concern for Leonora.

There are some more excellent performances from all of the minor characters in this well-cast production, and the State Opera Chorus is at its best, with plenty of opportunities to show it. In all aspects this is an engaging and thoroughly rewarding production that no opera lover will want to miss.

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