sat 24/03/2018

The Force of Destiny, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Force of Destiny, English National Opera

The Force of Destiny, English National Opera

Bieito channels Picasso for a grim but compelling update of Verdi’s tragedy

Anthony Michaels-Moore as Don CarloAll images - Robert Workman

Verdi’s dark tale gets even darker in this new staging from Calixto Bieito. He updates the story to the Spanish Civil War, a setting with plenty of opportunity for his trademark violence but also offering illuminating parallels on the story itself. ENO has assembled a fine cast for the occasion, and the musical direction, from Mark Wigglesworth, is dynamic and dramatically engaged. The result is a staging that gives rare focus to this sprawling score, and to its grim implications of tragedy and fate.

Bieito explains that the civil war setting offers a parallel to the central family drama of the opera: the Vargas family torn apart through their incapability for reconciliation. As in civil war, the enemy is within. Visually, the setting takes on a greying monochrome, partly referencing newsreel footage, but also Picasso’s Guernica, and at one point the image of a startled horse is projected against the backdrop to make that connection explicit. One area that doesn’t lend itself to subtlety is the evocation of fascism, and the first two acts are weighed down with oppressive back projections of goose-stepping soldiers and giant jackboots. There is also a book-burning, or at least tearing-up, scene in the second act that seems heavy-handed. But the civil war angle works, especially for the specific context it provides for the ill-defined wartime setting of the libretto.

Three-storey terraced buildings dominate the stage throughout, two-dimensional facades, each supported behind by a small scaffold. The backs become as visible as the fronts, as each is moved around and, at one point, all are set in continuous rotation on the revolving stage. None of this adds much to the drama; the facades are set at oblique angles to convey the trauma of the fourth act, but are otherwise left to their own devices. They make for ambiguous scenarios, none of which do more than suggest the settings, but the abstraction allows the drama to take place on a more physiological level, its contexts more imagined than defined.

Strong performances in the lead roles energise this staging from the start. The first act is dominated by the Leonora of Tamara Wilson (pictured above). She has a commanding voice, emotive and well-projected. It’s not especially pretty, but it’s ideal for the part. Both she and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro (pictured below) seem a little inhibited in this first act, but that may be deliberate: the starting-point in a long emotional journey. Jones has a strong, robust tenor, another excellent Verdi voice. Anthony Michaels-Moore (pictured top) is equally compelling as Carlo. His big aria in the second act is compromised by noisy book-tearing, but he has the vocal power to be heard above it all, and plenty more chances to shine later on.

The ambiguous sets seem designed to deliberately compromise the sanctuary of the church, making this wartime environment even more hostile to Leonora. Her initiation into the hermitage is provocatively sadomasochistic, involving a barbed-wire crown of thorns (spoiler: she garrottes herself with it at the end – nasty). But there is humanity, and even humour, in the Father Superior of James Creswell and Melitone of Andrew Shore. Creswell hasn’t quite the profundo the role calls for, but plenty of authority nonetheless, and Shore makes the most of the relatively small part of Melitone, making a real character out of the conflicted and sarcastic friar.

Act Three brings out Bieito’s more visceral instincts, with several instances of arbitrary violence. Preziosilla, the soldier’s widow inciting the troops, is a wholly unredeemed figure here, and Rinat Shaham’s icy performance and brittle tone are ideal. Some of the violence seems gratuitous and silly, like when she beats up a heavily pregnant woman while singing her first aria. But the “Rataplan” chorus works well as a gangland execution scene, Verdi’s music finally approaching the savagery that Bieito has been projecting on it.

While some of the dramaturgy earlier on is hit-and-miss, this production comes into its own in the final act. Bieito has been described as the Quentin Tarantino of opera, and the epithet is fully vindicated here. He plays it like a Spaghetti Western, Carlo and Alvaro, the old adversaries, meeting in the ruins of a monastery for their final showdown. Anthony Michaels-Moore is compelling, a graphic portrayal of a psychosis induced by the quest for revenge. Bieito delivers a final elegant touch by setting the final scene, not in a hermit’s cave, but at the dining-table at which the first act played out, the chairs still in disarray from the shooting many years before.

Subtleties like that are not what Bieito is known for, but they are everywhere apparent in this production. He is working here with a fine and dramatically engaged cast. Mark Wigglesworth directs a musical performance that is a little more grounded and safe than the production itself, although the balance between the two is effective. The orchestra plays well for him, although sometimes feels constrained by the sheer control he applies (and when he does loosen the reins, as in the third act bacchanal, the co-ordination suffers). But overall, this feels like a strong company project, with everyone at ENO committed to the vision of their enfant terrible director, even though this production shows worrying signs he might actually be growing up.


Bieito has been described as the Quentin Tarantino of opera, and that’s fully vindicated here


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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