Review: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, Royal Opera House

Verdi's tale of sibling animosity and vengeance set against war in Spain makes a triumphant revival four years after its first outing

By: Sep. 20, 2023
Review: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, Royal Opera House

Review: LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, Royal Opera House In a series of brief introductory wordless scenes, we see three children traumatised. One dies and the other two, a sister and brother, unable to communicate, seethe and fight, the girl growing into a woman starved of love and the boy growing into a man for whom war-war will always trump jaw-jaw. 

We’re minutes into the four hours runtime of this revival of Christof Loy’s 2019 production and the emotions are already dialled to 11. Such extremes are the warp and weft of Italian opera of course, but there’s a long way to go, so it’s asking a lot of the acting skills of the singers to avoid the temptation to collapse into melodrama or to ease back and sap the energy so swiftly and brutally established. But what follows comprises some of the best characterisation this reviewer has seen on this stage, an aspect of opera that can be a little glossed over, excused by art form’s penchant for preposterous plots (this is a case in point).

Neglected Leonora inevitably falls for an “unsuitable man”, Don Alvaro, a nobleman irrevocably tainted in the eyes of Leonora’s family by his Inca roots. On the eve of their elopement, window open, horses saddled, she has second thoughts, her love for her father pulling her one way, her love for the glamorous and decent Alvaro pulling her the other. Hesitation leads to a showdown in which a gun is discharged accidentally, her father killed and her brother, Carlo, vows to make good on his stricken parent's dying curse and avenge himself on both lovers. 

The first two acts are dominated by Sondra Radvanovsky’s supercharged singing as she carries Leonora’s despair and fear into exile. There’s such a lot of work to do here - Verdi goes big on his soprano's arias and duets, sung with an extraordinary capacity to both fill the house and convey the most intimate of hopes and fears. There are times when Radvanovsky’s voice feels too much, squashing the orchestra, but that’s forgivable as the turmoil in Leonora’s mind has overtaken her. Crucially, she never becomes just another victim, but is always a woman trapped by her empty childhood and the events that followed.

Believing Alvaro dead, she is on the run from her brother, almost discovered in an inn where the hoi polloi are dancing while they still can; war and famine drawing ever closer. Eventually she fetches up at a monastery where she pleads to be consigned to a cave to live a hermit’s life in penance for the grief she has brought upon herself and others. Evgeny Stavinsky brings real compassion to his singing as he contemplates Leonora’s wish, but eventually gives way having seen her contemplation of The Virgin and The Cross. 

Meanwhile…plot twist! Alvaro, under a false name and wishing for nothing beyond an honourable death on the battlefield, cannot suppress his natural leadership and courage and has risen, almost by accident, to the rank of captain in Spain’s army fighting in Italy against German invaders. Carlo, also under a nom de guerre the better to escape his family’s shame, is stabbed in a brothel and saved by... Alvaro! The men become firm friends but, once their true identities are discovered, Carlo severs the bond of friendship in favour of vengeance. 

Brian Jagde’s tenor underpins the heroic nature of Alvaro with grace and just enough insecurity to allow his one point of vulnerability - his bloodline - to be credible, for all his protestations of his pride in his roots. Etienne Dupuis, his baritone going lower in every sense, ruthlessly exploits that Achilles’ heel, Carlo cruelly throwing racist epithets that he knows will provoke the fighting spirit in an otherwise fatigued and passive Alvaro, allowing a veneer of honour to gild his implacable pursuit of revenge.

It doesn’t end well - but not quite as badly in this revised ‘Milan version’ re-written after a backlash against the denouement of the original, premiered some seven years earlier.

The tale of the thwarted lovers, the father’s curse and the brother’s lifelong thirst for a reckoning set against war and religious sentiment is compelling, beautifully sung on stage and played in the pit, the orchestra under Mark Elder’s baton. Perhaps that would be enough, but Verdi, like Shakepeare (whose influence is evident throughout), knew that he was in the business of popular entertainment - so bring on the dancing girls.

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya gives us that overused trope of the exotic gypsy, who rouses the populace, embraces the dangers of war and, somehow, comes through largely unscathed. Her mezzo-soprano is a little underpowered compared to the other voices in the cast, but it’s plenty enough and is compensated by her gleeful manipulation of the masses, the chorus comprising singers and dancers. That the partygoers of Act II have become, some years later, the starving poor of Act IV, at the mercy of Rodion Pogossov’s bitterly misanthropic monk, Melatonin, has parallels in 2023, as the UK (albeit probably not many in this audience) face another tough winter.

Roll in Christian Schmidt’s set that insists on reminding us of the dysfunctional family home from which the ruin of these three lives sprang and this revival delivers exactly what this house should deliver. This is grand opera at its most forceful, sung, played and acted with supreme confidence, fusing music and drama to tell a tale that would be laughed out of court in other many of media, but sits four-square with opera’s requirement to suspend disbelief (really, really suspend it) and, in return, take you to places no other mechanism of storytelling can go.  

La Forza Del Destino at the Royal Opera House until 9 October        

Photo Credit: Camilla Greenwell


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Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to see so much of his home city's theatre. He writes about ... Gary Naylor">(read more about this author)



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