La Forza del Destino isn't performed nearly as often as Verdi's most popular works: this year's production at Opera Holland Park is the first time it's been staged in the UK for several years. This is odd, because musically, it's a strong contender for being Verdi's greatest work of all, at least in terms of its melodies and the way they are developed and woven into the story: this opera has more melodies that stay with you as you leave the opera house than any except perhaps Rigoletto. The events on stage are full of action and excitement, starting with a failed elopement and a shooting in the first scene and keeping up the pace from there. Admittedly, La Forza's plot suffers from moments of poor continuity and surpassing melodramatic silliness, but that's never stopped most opera impresarios.

Photo of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in Skopje courtesy of Robert Gilder & Co.
Photo of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in Skopje courtesy of Robert Gilder & Co.

Time for cards on the table. La Forza del Destino is one of my very favourite of all operas and I was more than a shade concerned about how a midsummer festival company would cope with its undoubted musical demands. I needn't have worried.

The first thing the opera demands is a top class soprano with plenty of warmth and dynamic range, able to cope from the softest and most intimate moments to singing at full power above tutti orchestra and chorus. This production certainly had that in the shape of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, who sung as good a Leonora as I ever expect to hear, commanding the stage and reminding me of watching the 1984 film of Leontyne Price. Her top moments, Madre, Pietosa Vergine as she enters her hermitage at the end of act II, and Pace, pace mio Dio! at the end of the opera, were spellbinding.

The tenor singing Don Alvaro is called upon to burst heroically into the scene in Act I and take command of the stage and of Leonora. Peter Auty didn't quite manage it: he wasn't helped by the costumes (as one of my neighbours put it, she was dressed in an Edwardian ball gown, and he like a 1970s football manager), but also, his voice was too lyrical and lacked the heroic brashness to overpower Jeffers. However, he improved steadily through the rest of the opera, and the (short-lived) friendship duet between him and Mark Stone's Don Carlo was sung with great beauty. Later in the opera, both men struggled somewhat with those scenes requiring more machismo and viciousness.

La Forza has a great cast of supporting characters. Mikhail Svetlov and Donald Maxwell were outstanding as the monks Padre Guardiano and Fra Melitone. Svetlov's stentorian voice made you sit up and take notice from its first note, and Maxwell did a great character act of the superstitious dodgy friar. Amongst the bit parts, Aled Hall made a wonderfully muscular and mercenary Trabuco.

Conductor Stuart Stratford hardly put a foot wrong throughout, from the massive brass triplets at the beginning to the gentle, exquisite ending.

The sets and costumes didn't convince. I'm sure it was all done on a very low budget, which is fine but doesn't explain Martin Duncan's apparent chair fetish. Large amounts of time were spent as people carried chairs around the stage, danced with chairs in their arms, were passed from chair to chair, stared at chairs suspended from the rigging, or simply sat in rows of chairs which had no place in the scene or the plot. And the modern-dress costumes were just odd and lacked attention to detail: the gypsy Preziosilla's red boho tunic oddly matched with black denim jeans and a black leather tool belt, what are supposed to be artillery and infantry soldiers brandishing handguns and dressed in airforce grey, pastel pyjama blue for Leonora's hermit's outfit, West Side Story gangland-style knives for a duel between officers.

Some of the scenes transcended this. The Act I scene in which Don Carlo nearly discovers Leonora in the inn came across with genuine tension, and the way in which the dissolute soldiers of Act III turn into the destitute beggars of Act IV was inventive and added an extra dimension to events.

For my money, La Forza del Destino deserves to be staged far more often than it is, and I'm really glad that Opera Holland Park have put it on. Musically, this production was top class, and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers's Leonora was a memorable performance.