Premiered in 1862, Giuseppe Verdi’s four-act opera La forza del destino is set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, and its story paints a bleak portrait of a society marked by political strife. The principals – lovers Leonora and Don Alvaro, and Leonora’s brother Don Carlo – are smack in the middle of this discord. When Alvaro accidentally kills Leonora’s dear father with an errant pistol shot, the lovers are forced apart. Carlo, in his uncompromising thirst for vengeance, invests years tracking down his father’s murderer. Brutally stubborn, and unwilling to acknowledge that the fatal shot was unintentional, Carlo not only stands in the way of lovers’ reconciliation, but also spurs the opera’s tragic ending, his sister Leonora’s death.

George Petean (Don Carlo)
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Zurich is well known for its contribution to Constructivism, and Hartmut Meyer’s bold set design for Andreas Homoki's production clearly pays visual tribute to that movement. The bare panels that spread across the stage can be shifted and refigured to come together in a huge taupe and white cube, such that the lovers, for example, can circle around it searching for the other in vain, an antic which verges on slapstick. Strobe lights turning on and off in quick succession feel like the hackneyed tradition of a disco party, and the black and burgundy vertical-striped flats give us something of a glorified football tricot. Most unsettling however, is the pit at the back of the stage into which members of the some 70-strong chorus sometimes take their leave, galumphing down a level to an offstage space as they do so. In short, the set short-changes the weight of the production.

Mechthild Seipel’s costumes are also self-conscious. Logically, there are regular illusions to Spanish fashion, but Spanish fashion on steroids. Trabuco, for example, made a fine figure in a bullfighter’s costume, compete with the traditional double-eared black hat. Alvaro’s’ “jeans-boy” look, too, inexplicably contrasted with Leonora’s elegant slinky black gown in Act 1, perhaps to underscore the fact that he was a foreigner, or, as Carlo later called him, an “accursed Indian”. The chorus costumes also pulled out all the stops: frizzy, bright orange, clownish wigs; lots of black silk and heavily chalked faces with blackened, deep-set eyes. Taken altogether, then, here was a veritable mortician’s cabinet.

Zurich Opera Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

As Leonora, Anja Harteros gave truly radiant vocal performance. Her rich soprano carried over the 75-musicians in the pit, and her stamina was close to superhuman. While both her schoolmarm-like chignon in Act 1, and the sloppy reporter’s raincoat she wore in in her convent isolation were peculiar anomalies, her powerful voice put a shimmering polish on Verdi’s tremendously variable score.

As her lover, Don Alvaro, Yonghoon Lee gave his arduous tenor role a convincing youthful idealism, delivered from a stranger in a strange land. Indeed, as an immigrant, a star-crossed lover, and as a man unjustly accused, his character made one feel the force of destiny acutely. As the avenging Don Carlo, George Petean’s voice ideally mastered the emotional outbursts and high-tempered vocal passages his role demanded. Before real identities are revealed, his “Solenne in quest’ora” duet with Alvaro, who has saved his life, was one of the true highlights of this performance.

George Petean (Don Carlo) and chorus
© Monika Rittershaus (2018)

Further, cast as both as the Marquis of Calatrava (Leonora’s father) and the Padre Guardiano, Wenwei Zhang’s bronzy bass was consistently solid, if reassuring; his character served as the steady pole among the others’ consistently moving parts. As Preziosilla, cast in this production more as Michael Jackson wannabe than fortune teller, Elena Maximova added visual color, but fell short in vocal carriage, and was often overshadowed by the volume of the orchestra’s turbulent passages. Jamez McCorkle sang a fine Trabuco, his sheer physical presence exuding authority and consummate strength. Finally, Renato Girolami’s resonant baritone lent compassion and conviction to his role as the cleric Melitone. In the middle of a huge crowd’s hubbub to get bread, he also sang one of the libretto’s funniest – and memorable – lines: “These beggars are really alarmingly fertile.”

Under Janko Kastelic’s direction, the Zurich opera’s two fine choruses supplemented the drama and colour of the production, even if, through no fault of their own, their ranks were simply too large for the set. Given the downstage placement of those imposing flush panels, the number of bodies in that limited space encumbered the chorus’ entrances and exits. That said, their vocal achievement was second to none. The same accolade can go to the members of the Philharmonia Zürich. In a full orchestral configuration under conductor and Verdi-aficionado Fabio Luisi, the “force of destiny” favoured these gifted musicians unconditionally.