by Rachel Beaumont

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Wild horses: La forza del destino at the ROH

La forza del destino
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Upper Slips C7, £24
24 March 2019
ROH page

I remember mildly disparaging Calixto Bieto’s production of La forza del destino at ENO a few years back. It was in English, of course; there was a lot of video and dark green shadows; the heroine died by self-strangulation with barbed wire. But compared to Christof Loy’s production, newly at the ROH, it was a hoot – proof that some shows can be so bad even the world’s greatest singers can’t make them fun to watch.

And what are the world’s greatest singers doing here, anyway? I know Verdiphiles will cast me Coventry-wards with hurt abhorrence, but there are so many problems with Forza. It has three magnificent tunes; it has wonderful arias for the three leads and some brilliant duets. But it also has a hero and heroine who spend a tiny amount of time together at the beginning and a tiny amount of time together at the end and the whole of the intervening three hours nowhere near each other. Come to that, most of the intervening three hours we don’t even have any of the stars on stage, as we spend time with Preziosilla and her mediocre music and her complete irrelevance to the story. For this we have the Netrebko-Kaufman-Tézier triumvirate. For this?

Preziosilla didn’t bother me nearly so much at ENO so I can’t lay all the blame with Verdi. Lucky blame-recipients should include Loy and designer Christian Schmidt and, sadly, choreographer Otto Pichler. It is a fateful idea to set an opera for which three fifths of it don’t need to exist all in one room. It is not psychologically acute: it is boring. And until now I have only seen Pichler’s work in Barrie Kosky productions. What I thought was a Koskyism turns out to be Pichlerite, and without Kosky’s holistic music-hall approach it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Thus we have tedious choruses with extremely tedious dancing all in the same bloody set. Wild horses could not drag me back.

Which is ridiculous, really, because Netrebko turns in a superhuman performance, backed all the way by Pappano and the orchestra. I’ve been on the fence before about Netrebko and she’s certainly never in danger of singing the note completely in tune – but boy what a sound. She owns the stage, she owns the auditorium, she owns the whole building; I feel Londoners must know there is something special in their midst. There is such incredible presence in her sound, such mastery of timbre, such beauty. She is magnificent.

Kaufmann and Tézier are very good, if neither comes near Netrebko nor their personal bests. Kaufmann started off a little hoarse, like he’d not really bothered warming up properly because he knows he’s got sod all to do in Acts I and II – but the second half was much more like it, he bringing his trademark intensity of sound and nuance of colour, wringing every grain of intellectual drama from this arid plot. Tézier, as usual, bounds about the stage with the appearance of someone who really, really likes singing; again as usual he tends ever so slightly to over-sing, lending a touch of coarseness to his otherwise refulgent sound. The sheer weight of vocal machismo in their duets almost manages to ignite the stage.

We have the world’s best singers in the leads; Pappano has also done us the service of world-best singers in most of the rest of the cast, with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Guardiano, Alessandro Corbelli as Melitone and Carlo Bosi in the stupidly tiny part of Trabuco all as superb as usual. The only exception is Preziosilla: I needed someone slightly vocally hotter than Veronica Simeoni, and while she’s good, sure, and it’s a terrible part, she doesn’t feel ever at home in the low tessitura. Alongside them all is Pappano, pouring heart and soul with the orchestra in a performance that is incisive, highly dramatic, thrillingly intent. If only the opera deserved it.

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