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The Force of Destiny

Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera
London Coliseum

The Force of Destiny Credit: Robert Workman
The Force of Destiny Credit: Robert Workman
The Force of Destiny Credit: Robert Workman

Calixto Bieito’s new staging of The Force of Destiny certainly makes an impression. Audience members in the interval murmur adjectives: striking, distressing, strong. ENO’s collaboration with the MET opera house has produced a piece worth talking about.

The Force of Destiny is a three-hour opera, and is often accused of having a poorly-paced, sprawling score. Mark Wigglesworth conducts an amalgamation of Verdi’s final revised score combined with material from his original, all excellently translated by Jeremy Sams. Paired with a quick time hop to 1930s Spain and Bieto’s highlighting of the horror and insanity throughout, this mammoth opera flows much better than expected.

Leonora and Don Alvaro plan to elope to escape the strong disapproval of her father. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan; the Father interrupts their departure and is accidentally shot by the offending lover. Leonora escapes to a convent and decides to live out the rest of her days as a hermit, whilst Don Alvaro ends up in the army. In another twist of improbable fate, he is fighting alongside his lover’s vengeful brother, Don Carlo.

Bieto places the action in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and is keen to portray the brutal, dark side to human nature when pushed into battle. In the programme, Bieto highlights a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "civil war is not war but a disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves."

The infighting certainly abounds onstage. The chorus of soldiers and wives have become hard and unfeeling. Don Carlo (excellently acted by Anthony Michaels Moore) goes slowly more insane through the opera as he fights with himself, his need for revenge splitting his senses.

Alongside these superbly conceived characters, Bieto loads the action with many ideas that are much harder to decipher. The zealous book breaking, buckets of blood and shadowy projections are extraneous details but overall work to highlight the cruelty running through this opera.

The characters' delivery is stylised; rarely do the leads interact whilst making eye contact. This works excellently during the earlier sections with the Dons in the midst of battle, but it does leave the final scene wanting emotionally. More infuriating is the lack of attention to small details, such as dead bodies not making it out of sight before clambering up.

This is Wigglesworth’s (ENO’s Music Director) second opera since taking over the helm. He certainly has a fine cast to work with. Young American singer Tamara Wilson (Leonora) has the audience spellbound. Her sumptuous voice delivers this huge role with great musical style and finesse, her use of dynamics highlighting the variety in Verdi’s writing.

She is paired with Gwyn Hughes Jones (Count Almava) who burns just as brightly. His expansive tenor voice soars through the Coliseum, and his emotional range as this poor figure blighted by destiny is very persuasive.

All of the cast are supported by the excellent sound Wigglesworth draws from the orchestra, although there are a few less co-ordinated moments between the orchestra and those onstage.

Sadly there are still far too many empty seats around the auditorium. ENO won the Royal Philarmonic Society Award in May for consistently outstanding work across a range of repertoire. The Force of Destiny proves once again that, whatever the turmoil in the box office, their onstage work deserves this accolade.

The first new staging of this opera at the ENO in twenty years is provoking, musically outstanding and a fine example of the talent still brought to the Coliseum.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis