The overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) is majestic and intriguing. The music is set against a tableau in which the key characters stand mute while the fortune-teller gypsy Preziosilla (Milijana Nikolic) lays out her cards to see what is ahead of them. A giant skull rises behind them all.
From the moment we know that the relationship of young Leonora (Nicole Youl) and the foreigner Don Alvaro (Rosario La Spina) is forbidden by her father, the Marquis of Calatrava (Steven Gallop), there is bound to be big trouble. In fact, Leonora is planning to elope with Alvaro when we first see them … but she has cold feet, sadly delaying the couple just long enough for them to be found out.
The opera’s narrative has something of The Bold & the Beautiful blended with Les Miserables about it; there are extremely improbable coincidences, high drama, and throughout it all a thirst for justice. This last quest is the job of Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo (Michael Lewis), who plans an honour killing of the lovers after Alvaro accidentally slays the Marquis. Alvaro and Leonora lose contact during their escape, the wounded Alvaro eventually believing Leonora dead, and she thinking her love has been betrayed because Alvaro seems to have disappeared. Their mutual grief drives the story towards a tragic end – (spoiler alert) – yes, everybody dies.
But that is to downplay the complexity of the tale and also to overlook the subtleties of its performance. There is never any doubt what anyone feels as the script is laden with simple, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, but there is also the dark backdrop of war and its attendant misery adding a real and grim dimension. Leonora seeks refuge at a monastery and then assumes the life of a hermit. Alvaro joins the army under an assumed name and befriends Don Carlo, who is also using a pseudonym. After his identity is discovered, Alvaro flees and becomes a monk.
No wonder, then, that the lives of the characters are played out in a world that is also inhabited by dark spirits. Various scenes are haunted by wraith-like figures with skull masks, suggesting that the concerns of the humans are fleeting ones, conducted among ghosts. Such scenes often have a dreamlike quality.
Conductor Andrea Licata used the string section, and the cellos in particular, to emphasise the emotional momentum of Verdi’s opera, but this production by the State Opera of SA was all about the voices. Youl’s arias were splendid, though her voice was twice lost in the music. There was no such trouble for the main male protagonists played by Lewis and La Spina, whose duets in particular were glorious. For unstated reasons, Lecia Robertson took the role of the hermit Leonora after the interval, and she sang beautifully. Gypsy Preziosilla (Nikolic) was in fine voice throughout, and her presence was also imposing because of her vivid costume and the sinister function of her character.
Mark Thompson’s set designs are marvellous, by turns sumptuous and bleak. Stairs are moved about between different scenes, making the most of the space by conveying depth and height with telling effect. The looming Virgin Mary figure at the monastery is both comforting and frightening. The scene in which Leonora takes the sacraments and renounces worldly attachments is a dark purple passage moodily lit by many candles, although featuring a portrait of Jesus that looks somewhat like Rolf Harris.
The costumes are wonderful, too, though all “off-shored”, as they say – made in India, Bangkok and elsewhere. A profound curiosity was the make-up. The occasional pasty face was no problem but everyone had dark eyes. It leant a goth/panda or even zombie appearance to the cast and was distracting, especially in the case of the comic figure Fre Mellitone (the engaging John Bolton Wood), who looked too much like The Addams Family’s Uncle Fester as a result. The program notes justify this as “a visual pun on death and dying”, but the story is already replete with death.
The ending was curious. Veering from the traditional story, Alvaro’s death is rendered symbolically through the stabbing of a Christ figure. You will just have to make up your own minds about whether is too heavy-handed or not.
In all, and notwithstanding the few oddities, La Forza del Destino is a very pleasing spectacle combined with impressive singing that makes it a delight. The stagecraft and operatic values are superb.
La Forza del Destino plays at the Festival Theatre again on October 15, 17 19.