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.”
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.
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.)
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
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
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.