The Force of Destiny

The beginning of Washington National Opera’s production of The Force of Destiny is more like an indie movie than a 19th century opera. A seemingly normal family sits at a table in silence – that’s right, silence. Verdi’s underperformed masterpiece does not open with a bang, but a whisper. The woman next to me shifted impatiently in her seat. Audience members may have been thinking, “Where is the big chorus? Where are the elaborate costumes?” I thought to myself, “I see what you are doing here, Francesca Zambello.”

Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

In her first new production as the Artistic Director of Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello sets The Force of Destiny in a grim futuristic hellhole of a world painted with guns and crosses – yet these modern elements are not a stretch. Verdi’s score itself is strikingly modern and unsettling, and the libretto, written by Francesco Maria Piave, and based on a Spanish play by Ángel de Saavedra, is full of thought-provoking symbols and clues – a dark humor permeates throughout this three hour relentless battle with “fate.”

The Force of Destiny is the story of three people who simultaneously ruin each other. The Marquis of Calatrava disapproves of his daughter Leonora’s foreign suitor and has moved his family out of the city to end their relationship. Leonora’s lover, Alvaro, arrives once her father has gone to bed, and demands that they run away and elope. Unfortunately, the Marquis is a light sleeper. An argument and an accidental gun shot lead to the Marquis’s death, sealing the fate of Leonora, who runs away to a religious community, Alvaro, who flees and later serves in the military, and Carlo, who vows to avenge his father’s death. It is interesting to note that these three characters are only onstage together at the very beginning and very end of the opera.

Adina Aaron as Leonora shines in the prologue and Act I aria “Me pellegrina ed orfano.” One striking pianoissimo followed by an outburst of passion made me sit up. Aaron loses momentum in subsequent acts (the role seems a size too large for her voice), but Act IV’s “Pace, pace mio Dio,” an unsettling lament sung while looking out into a graffiti filled alley, is divine. The aria is a standstill moment. The reoccurring string theme creeps in: fate and destiny are approaching and unstoppable.

Not your grandmother's Verdi. Ketevan Kemoklidze as Preziosilla and The Company of The Force of Destiny. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Not your grandmother’s Verdi. Ketevan Kemoklidze as Preziosilla and The Company of The Force of Destiny. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Another highlight is Giancarlo Monsalve’s heartbreaking aria “La vita e inferno all’infelice” about his past and unavoidable fate. All that needs to be said about Monsalve is that his presence is unparalleled. Bravo. Mark Delavan puts in a solid performance as Carlo. Although he was slightly off pitch last night in his admittedly challenging Act III aria, his rich and expressive singing in Act IV won me over. But it is mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze as fortune-teller Preziosilla who steals the show entirely. Her outstanding vocal display and presence command the stage. It’s ridiculous. (And “Rataplan” sounds so contemporary that I had to Spotify it after the performance to make sure WNO hadn’t rearranged it. Kudos to Verdi on that one.)

Highly Recommended
The Force of Destiny
Closes October 26, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $300
Schedule varies
Valeriano Lanchas is entertaining as Brother Melitone in his spitfire Act IV aria, showing remarkable flair and endurance. Enrico Iori is also a highlight. His rich bass is lovely to listen to – I wish I could have heard more of it. Xian Zhang conducted the WNO Orchestra last night with nuance in her WNO debut, but the singers and orchestra seemed disconnected more than once.

Peter J. Davison’s inventive and stylish set and Mark McCullough’s bold lighting perfectly match the dark unhinging setting put in motion by Zambello’s vision. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are contemporary, flashy and eye-catching. In fact, the real star of this show is the production. If The Force of Destiny is indicative of what is to come from Zambello and the team at WNO, I am certainly excited.

The Force of Destiny begs for repeat viewings to answer questions dug up by its complex libretto and design: What is the meaning of the color red? Who is good and who is evil? What does this opera say about the church? How can one accident set this all in motion? Does fate exist? Can we switch gears and change outcomes before they happen, or are we powerless?

The Force of Destiny (Zambello decidedly uses the English title, by the way) is a feast for the eyes, ears and brain. This is not your grandmother’s opera. Happy birthday Verdi indeed.

In Italian with projected English titles


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The Force of Destiny . Music by Giuseppe Verdi . Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave . Director: Francesca Zambello . Featuring (both casts listed here): Adina Aaron, Amber Wagner, Giancarlo Monsalve, Rafael Davila, Mark Delavan, Luca Salsi, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Valeriano Lanchas, Enrico Iori, Peter Volpe, Robert Baker, Soloman Howard, Deborah Nansteel, and Christian Bowers. Conductor: Xian Zhang . Set design: Peter J. Davison . Costume design: Catherine Zuber . Lighting design: Mark McCullough . Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel . Hair and makeup: Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen Associates . Chorus Master: Steven Gathman . Fight Master: Joe Isenberg . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Rebecca Evans.

Other reviews:

Anne Midgette . Washington Post
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Terry Ponick . Washington Times
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun 

Rebecca Evans About Rebecca Evans

Rebecca Evans is a writer, communicator, arts advocate, and social media strategist. She is an avid believer in the power of the arts to awaken activists and inspire change. (Oklahoma! started a musical theatre revolution and The Rite of Spring started a riot.) Rebecca currently works in marketing and policy for a nonprofit in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and as a staff writer for DC Theatre Scene. In her spare time, she loves watching old movies, singing while baking, playing the banjo, and devouring books and bleu cheese. More on her Website


  1. Paula Bickham says:

    Okay I saw this today. I liked it. Took me awhile to get used to the bright, and loud “seedy” set, but that’s okay. It was a different take, and for that I commend the director. She took a chance – with stiff n’ stuffy DC, who thinks edgy theatre is a little skin, and lots of swearing. Adina Aaaron is beautiful, and her voice is even more beautiful. This was her debut with WNO. What a pity and shame on WNO. She should have graced KC Opera House a while ago. The woman that played the maid (please pardon my forgetfulness), had just as rich, and resonating beautiful voice as well. I’m sorry there wasn’t more for her. There were parts of the opera that were kind of hokey, but I’m not going to get into them too deeply: gun used to kill the father sounded like a cap gun; son is angered by the maid, and he slams her head into a table, and tosses her aside; the poor are given bottled water (not sure what era this is); costumes look like they are from different eras. Overall, I really liked it

  2. Gene Barnes says:

    Just another bizarro Eurotrash production. Updating the time to the present only made the plot more silly than it would have been had it been set when Verdi intended. But the main thing is how insulted I feel when a director feels he has to lead you by the nose into a particular way of looking at a story. This story (as with most opera stories) eloquently speaks for itself.

    These are dark times for opera and for Shakespeare plays, so rarely does one get to see a production of either that is not completely adulterated by the massive, intrusive ego of the producer/director. I’d like to see operas staged like Broadway musicals, straight and to the point. Instead we get BS — a constant barrage of it.

    I was there on opening night, and I found myself frequently closing my eyes rather than put up with the visual obscenities. This is my favorite Verdi opera (an unusual choice perhaps but the music is so direct and moving I can’t help it), but I had a difficult time enjoying it what with the garbage onstage.

    Eurotrash — ick.

  3. Rebecca, Nice job on the writing of this opera. It brought to life the strong visuals and Zambellos’ bold interpretation of this Verdi opera. I look forward to reading more of your reviews and welcome you to the team. My question always on updating of an opera or, for that matter, Shakespeare, is “Does the concept hold through the last act?”



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