‘La Forza del Destino’: Overwrought, But Worth the Wild Ride

From everything we know, Francesca Zambello—in her first full season as Washington National Opera’s artistic director—likes a challenge. From everything we know about composer Guiseppe Verdi, he can certainly present a challenge, especially with “La Forza del Destino” (“The Force of Destiny”), a rarely performed—for any number of sensible reasons—minefield of an opera, which presents directors, conductors and singers with an array of pitfalls.

If this relatively—it’s three hours plus but could be longer, depending on what’s in and what’s out—short production wavers and falters here and there, and sometimes threatens to crash into chaos and confusion, everyone on hand can take a little responsibility. But the principal fault is the opera’s construction, its raison d’etre. The music, as with all things Verdi, is awesome, while the libretto, based on the play “Don Alvaro” by Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, written in 1835, is not so much.

Yet the production, set more or less in vague, contemporary times in Spain and Italy, also manages to be compelling, its very overwrought craziness almost works for it. For that, Zambello can take a lot of credit—just for daring not to play it safe on Verdi’s centenary with a Verdi crowd pleaser, and for moving everything along at a feverish pace, overcoming the opera’s improbabilities, and outcomes, which are just plain too, well, operatic.

Give some credit, too, to young American soprano Adina Aaron, who has already had some notable triumphs, including “Aida” at Glimmerglass, directed by Zambello. She took the lead role of the tragic Donna Leonora, who is driven to a life of solitude and isolation after her beloved Don Alvaro accidentally was responsible for killing Leonora’s father, the Marquis of Calatrava as the couple were about to elope against the father’s wishes. Aaron sings movingly and with emotional and vocal range—especially in the quieter scenes, as she anguished her loyalties for love and family and pleads to be allowed into sanctuary and solitude. Vocally, she tugged at the audience with her voice and her ability to perform as a tragic heroine.

Verdi doesn’t help matters, of course, by literally disappearing her for most of the lengthy second act, which leaves the narrative and the singing in the hands of the Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve, who sings Don Alvaro and American tenor Mark Delavan, who plays the implacable Don Carlo, Leonora’s brother on the hunt for vengeance for the stain on the family honor who has vowed to avenge the murder of his father and the dishonoring of his sister. The best way to do that—kill both of them. But after Leonora has made her way to solitude, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo, each searching for Leonora, each living under false names, get caught up in a vaguely modern war where the sides are not quite identifiable as gunmen, armed with AK-47s, hunt each other amid a scarred, charred city landscape, both saving each other’s lives in turn.

The trouble here isn’t just that the story gets a little silly. There’s only so much coincidence you can blame on destiny. The concern is that a certain sameness sets in: the two men sing about their plans, their cries for vengeance or despair—the vengeance for Carlo, the despair for Alvaro, who more than several times lets out that he only hopes for death. For a time, each is unaware of the other’s identity and have become sort of frenemies, buddies in risks, danger and courage. But alas, Carlo soon finds who Alvaro is, and the chase is on again after a bitter but inconclusive fight. Oddly enough, Alvaro winds up as taking up the cloth in the very same monastery where Leonora is hidden— ah, destiny. And soon enough, the three are reunited, with tragic results.

Mansalve hits his mark and notes and cuts a dashing figure, and Carlos is a menacing, large figure who you can certainly hear, but neither makes an emotional impact—and for those two, it’s a long time to carry the production before Leonora reappears. Musically, Chinese-American conductor Zian Zhang leads with energy and force, almost to a fault. The war is presented by Zambello and designer Peter J. Davison with verve, smarts and high, stark drama, the combat zone starts out as a kind of red light district, where the impassioned Preziosilla, a kind of hot-stuff seer and kinky prophetess, holds forth with bold passion as played by Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze, turns into ruins and doubles at times as a portable MASH unit.

The scenes at the monastery are striking, touching and quite powerful, and sometimes—when the whiny priest Melitone (Columbian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas) is on hand—even funny.

Zambello chose to put the noted overture at the start of the proceedings with the performers miming actions. It seemed a muted way to begin, especially with the opening scene exploding into startling drama and great beauty, when Leonara sings how she is torn between her great love and loyalty to her father, whom she loves. Everything seems to happen at once: “Shots fired,” confusion, escape, abandonment in the space of minute. And we and they are all off in pursuit of: glory, peace, love, adventure, danger, requitement and forgiveness, vengeance and all the usual stuff.

What Zambello has done is to bring all this to preposterous and often thrilling live action—the landscapes, and settings brim with the energies and schemes, the sorrows not just of heroes, villains and heroines, but priests, the starving, the wounded, the holy and unholy all around them.

That’s what makes this particular “La Forza del Destino”, a force, if not of destiny, at least high drama and stirring (by Aaron and the orchestra) music.

At the Kennedy Center: “La Forza del Destino” will be performed Oct. 16, 20, 24 and 26, while Amber Wagner, Rafael Davila and Luca Salsi will take on the three principals Donna Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo on Oct. 18 and 22.

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