November 3rd, 2005

SF Opera

La Forza del Destino. And other silliness.

So, La Forza del Destino is a fairly good opera if you ignore how silly the plot is. It starts out vaguely OK. Leonora, the daughter of the Marchese Vargas de Calatrava, is in love with Alvaro, the son of a now-deceased governor of Peru who rebelled against Spain and married an Inca princess. (Unfortunately, his side lost the subsequent war.) She plans to elope with him and go off to live under some assumed identity somewhere; unfortunately, thanks to her hesitation and waffling, her father catches them. Alvaro came armed, but doesn't intend to kill his beloved's father; so he throws down his gun... which goes off, accidentally killing his beloved's father. Oops.

The coincidences, of course, don't end there -- this is, after all, an opera about the Force of Destiny, and it turns out nobody's destiny, in this story, is particularly pleasant. Leonora's brother Carlo is implacably tracking his sister and her lover, planning to avenge his father's death. Alvaro and Leonora, meanwhile, have gotten separated, and each thinks the other is dead. Leonora, disguised as a man, spots Carlo at an inn, and decides that if he's still tracking her, she ought to hide more thoroughly, so she goes off and becomes a hermit in a sacred cave, guarded by some monks, with only the Father Superior knowing her identity.

Carlo gets caught up with the call to arms when Preziosilla, a camp-follower / fortune-teller / military recruiter (um, what?) shows up announcing that the homeland is under attack by those barbarous Germans. Of course, Carlo (under an assumed name) promptly meets up with Alvaro (also under an assumed name). Each manages to save the other's life, making them blood brothers and fast friends. When Alvaro has a wound which is potentially mortal, he asks Carlo to guard a box of letters; because Alvaro recoiled from a comment that he would receive the Order of Calatrava for his valor, Carlo is suspicious, and looks in the box, finding confirmation that his friend is actually the man he's been hunting. Carlo informs Alvaro that he's certain that Leonora is still alive, because after she got separated from Alvaro she visited some relatives before disappearing again. Alvaro, being a decent fellow, tries to persuade Carlo that, having formed a friendship on mutually observed honor, they should track down Leonora together and live happily ever after. Carlo will have none of that.

After their duel is interrupted by the troops under their command, Alvaro manages to escape, and decides (apparently forgetting about that whole "tracking down Leonora" idea) that he wants to join a monastery. Naturally, he ends up at the same monastery as Leonora. Carlo tracks him down again, manages to provoke him by insulting his ancestry, and they march off to the woods near the cave to fight. Alvaro wins the duel, and rushes to the cave to ask the sacred hermit to give last rites to his friend/enemy. He quickly figures out who the hermit is, and tells her that he's ashamed to be finding her with her family's blood on his hands (again!). She rushes to see her brother, who, with his last ounce of strength, grabs his sword and mortally wounds her. She dies in Alvaro's arms, and he goes back to being a monk.

So, um, yeah, all very silly. Along the way though, Verdi gets to paint musical portraits of the conflicted Leonora, who dearly loves both her family and Alvaro; the somewhat hapless, but good-hearted Alvaro; and the psychopathic Carlo, who is so focused on vengeance that the facts of the case and the sincere friendship and honor of Alvaro don't even slow him down. He also gets in some good bits for the chorus, and for the slightly crazy, seductive Preziosilla, who embodies the intersection of the human obsessions with sex and violence.

The production made some interesting choices. The sets were basically monochrome. Black in the first act, urban camo for the second, and pale-gray to white for the third. The costumes started out more-or-less period, then gradually became more and more anachronistic. Preziosilla arrives on the scene with blood red punk hair, wearing a black vinyl trenchcoat, covering red leather pants and corset -- she's the only color in the whole place. The soldiers' outfits are modern urban camo, and the beggar costumes everyone (aside from the monks, who keep their traditional Franciscan robes) ends up in after the war were ragged trenchcoats, turtlenecks, and pants. The war scene used some fairly nifty lighting and pyrotechnic effects. Also, the church scene, with Leonora dedicating herself as a hermit, was well done, with candles laid around a circle of light, masked to look like a classic rose window. The last set, in which the "cave" was represented by an odd structure made of metal beams, was a bit weirder than I tend to prefer, but, well, still interesting. One thing that annoyed me was that when they had the young, irritable Friar kick over the pot of food for the poor, the pot actually had some stuff in it, which then laid around on the stage for the remainder of the show. As in Doctor Atomic, I found the detritus on the stage annoying. Props should vanish as soon as they're no longer appropriate. :-P

The voices were very good. The tenor playing Alvaro started out the first act seeming a little weak (he sounded like he was shouting as much as singing), but quickly found his groove and delivered excellent high-end work in later scenes. Leonora was a solid soprano, and excelled in the places where she was singing with others, adding an otherworldly quality to duets and chorales. The baritone for Carlo managed to make his character's anger come through in the singing, remaining melodic while practically spitting out his charges against Alvaro and Leonora. And the Preziosilla was a fabulous alto; the "Rataplan", in which she sings about the glory of marching off to war, to the "rataplan" beat of the drums, provides an alto with some vocal gymnastics that are almost comparable to what a soprano gets as the Queen of the Night; and she hit every note, every mad run or octave leap, with crystal clarity.

PS: What do you get when you cross a large black cat with a small black costume? Darth Litter. I can't believe she didn't lose an eye, trying to get her cat into that gear...
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