The Force Of Destiny | Joan Sutherland Theatre

It has to be one of the best titles in theatrical history. And it sounds even better in Italian: La Forza del Destino. Verdi’s four-act opera may’ve been around since late 1862, but this production wasn’t even commissioned until this very year.

It’s the darkest of tales, even by operatic standards, and director Tama Matheson certainly hasn’t resoled from that fact. Indeed, he’s afforded designer Mark Thompson every macabre indulgence; not least the central presence of a supersized skull, extruded from the stage as if by way of geological time and pressure, like a kind of indoor Uluru. For all this, at times it looks little more impressive than an overblown, hollowed-out Halloween pumpkin. Nonetheless, it’s a motif that lets us know what we’re in for. And as relative as it and other aspects of the staging are to the bleak intensity of the story, I found it rather suffocating and claustrophobic. Nor was this feeling exactly leavened by the all black-clad OA chorus, holding skull masks to their faces. Efficacious, therefore, you might argue.

This is what Matheson (and assistant director, Netta Yashchin) is going for. And I might not argue back. But not only did I find it curtailed my enjoyment (if that’s the word) somewhat, but hamfistedly prevented the opera speaking for itself. In other words, complimenting the intelligence and imagination of the audience by allowing more room for theatre of the mind would’ve amounted, for mine, to a more sophisticated approach. The physical manifestations of Nigel Levings’ lighting design, too, was quite often not only discernible, but obvious: all very ‘now’, perhaps; transparent, direct and uncompromisingly authentic. But, in effect, it was something that drew me back, outside the story.

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Lest I should leave an impression of disdain for Thompson’s design, let me stress that the aspect which had me oohing and ahhing was the costuming. The gowns were quite simply magnificent: a breathtaking feat of couture, characterised by a sombre opulence. Musically, too, there was opulence. First and foremost, thanks to Verdi’s timeless score, opening with those big, bold, brassy alarms that herald the famous overture, which transmutes into the alternative soundtrack for The Godfather.

And then there was a constellation of stars, starting with conductor Andrea Licata, who looks more like Guiseppe. Not Guiseppe Verdi. Nor Guiseppe from the pizza parlour down the road. But Guiseppe, Pinnochio’s father: a substantial man, with big, purposeful hands. They’re particularly noticeable, for Licata eschews the bourgeois baton. He’s a hands on conductor and it’s my superstitious belief that it connects him more directly and intimately with the orchestra.

Topping the list of singers and characters is Svetla Vassileva, as Donna Leonora di Vargas, the daughter of the Marchese di Calatrava. Neither seemed at all perturbed about the parlous state of the Spanish economy: matters of the heart weighed far too heavily. Vassileva’s reputation and resume may precede her, but, let’s face it, that means nothing to we skeptical Aussies. But within seconds, we can hear why Covent Garden, the Vienna State or Paris National Opera would covet her for a production, be it Puccini, Mozart, or Donizetti. She, who reputedly formed her ambition to be an opera singer at the age of four, has exceptional vocational instincts. And vocal ones. She taunts us, on the one hand, with the most delicate pianissimo; on the other, almost shocking us with a stinging power, capable of pinning one’s ears, firmly, to the back wall of ‘the Joan’. Talk about the force of destiny: hers is the force of prodigy; such dynamics and, through the entire spectrum of decibels, such clarity and precision. It might not yet be the most characterful soprano, but in every technical department, it ticks boxes. In fact, it explodes them. Add to this an aptitude for acting that runs deeper than is sometimes the case with singers (we got a palpable sense of her destructive fickleness and equivocation), and you’ve one thrilling first lady in Cyclone Svetla.

Leonora, as all self-respecting girls of good breeding must, is engrossed, or almost, in a forbidden love, with Don Alvaro. In fact, she’s more or less conceded to elope with him. And why wouldn’t she, when the role is sung by Riccardo Massi? He, as Alvaro, is the archetypal nobleman cad, who couches his unseemly, libidinous haste in chaste, romantic language. He has himself convinced, so why not others, including Leo and her family? Massi made his debut only four years ago, yet has already sung on numerous of the most prestigious stages in Europe, as well as with The Met. His is the most attractive of tenors: as warm and smooth as melted couverture, while remaining clear and strong.

There were more than creditable performances from Jonathan Summers as Leo’s consummately vengeful, loose cannon brother, Don Carlo di Vargas and Richard Anderson as the Marchese. Unfortunately for them, these tended to be overshadowed by the rattle and hum of Florentine, Giacomo Prestia’s bass, as the only voice of relative reason and compassion, in Padre Guardiano, an Hispanic Ted Noffs, Bill Crews or Chris Riley. It rumbles forth like an eight-on-the-scale earthquake, or train barrelling through the underground. His tessitura is considerable and puts him, I imagine, in the profondo class; his timbre round, full, whole and darkly chocolate.

Rinat Shaham’s ravishingly colourful mezzo-soprano, full of riches, treasure and pleasures is as edifying to the ear as her visage to the eye and, as the prescient gypsy, Preziosilla, hers is a truly haunting presence. Her mischievous character shines through, as does the comical grumpiness of Fra Melitone, played by Warwick Fyfe, who is utterly compelling aurally and theatrically. In a similar class are Kanen Breen as Mastro Trabuco, a cowering street pedlar (although Matheson made the part too Fagin-like for my taste) and Gennadi Dubinsky as the portly and pompous Un Alcade (a mayor and don’t too many still conform to that description?).

The orchestra was in characteristically fine fettle, of course. The heroes of this production are Verdi’s score, the unbelievable cavalcade of spellbinding singers, some fine acting and wonderful costumes. The unrelenting gloominess of the plot is notorious and opting for the original “Russian” ending hardly helped that. Making matters worse was the recapitulated death of a supersized Christ, stabbed by the suicidal Alvaro as a final insult to God. Yes, The Force Of Destiny‘s main impetus is musical.

The details: The Force Of Destiny plays the Joan Sutherland Thetare, Sydney Opera House until July 23. Tickets on the OA website.