A new production of La forza del destino premièred in Munich in December 2013 and has been revived at this summer's Opera Festival. Martin Kušej updates the action to modern times, and shows that the family and religion are essentially one and the same in this tragic love story; both are forces to oppress and destroy.

As the familiar overture begins, the curtain rises and we see a family saying a prayer before supper around a long rectangular table. Leonora is nervous as she anticipates the arrival of Don Alvaro and plays with her food, shredding a slice of bread to pieces absent-mindedly as if she was partaking of the body of Christ. This action is reprised at the end of the opera, as she sings “Pace, pace mio Dio!”. In fact, the opera comes full circle, as the family supper scene is recreated at the end, with Leonora and her brother Don Carlo dead in their original seats, while Padre Guardiano, dressed in the Marquis’ suit, sits at the head of the table. Alvaro, who sought to enter the family at the beginning of the opera, leaves the table and the stage behind in disgust at the end, throwing a crucifix onto the pile of larger crucifixes on stage.

One is struck by how the lovers of this opera are really seldom together on stage, as Acts I and II are dominated by Leonora while Acts III and IV belong almost exclusively to Alvaro save for Leonora’s final scene. Including the interval, the tenor and the soprano each has close to two hours of absence from the stage, so they clearly must warm up their voices again. Don Carlo the brother/friend/enemy is one constant presence and link in both of their scenes. Thus the opera calls for three, not two, strong voices to be successful: Munich more than delivers in this regard.

The cast from last winter's successful première remains intact this summer. Anja Harteros excels in the lyrical and dramatic roles of Verdi and Strauss, and her Leonora shows her at her best; the “covered” quality of her middle range opens up to clear and pure high notes, and her use of pianissimo as she floats her notes ever so higher is breathtaking.  She took a bit to warm up in Act I, but as soon as Kaufmann burst onto the stage sporting a wig of long hair, the action and singing heated up and their brief duet was sung with dizzying excitement. Tall and regal in her deportment, Harteros expressed more about Leonora’s emotional turmoil by often standing still, her slight body movement and turn of head signaling subtle emotions.  Her “Pace, pace mio Dio” was a tour de force, as well as her entrance scene to the convent as her body double gets dipped into a pool of water before she reappears from the back to float her pianissimo in prayer.

Kaufmann was said to have been under the weather on 25 July as the current run opened, but this evening his singing and acting showed him at his best; a strong stage presence, he immediately took control of the family dining table as he seduced the daughter of the house and accidentally shot her father. His movement was agile in demanding stage action, and his use of mezza voce was limited and effective; when he opened up to full singing, his voice filled the theater with force and energy.  

Ludovic Tézier is a very strong third cog in this opera, as his dark but bright baritone expresses both authoritative arrogance and tender friendship. The tenor/baritone duets in Acts III and IV were all sung extremely well and their stage chemistry was as palpable as that of a Don Carlo and Rodorigo. Tézier’s cabaletta after Carlo’s Act III aria (“Egli è salvo! Gioia immensa”) was especially thrilling.

Nadia Krasteva negotiated the tricky “Rataplan” scene skillfully while she exhorts men to a battle; her warm and flexible mezzo has enough strength to cut through the heavy chorus and orchestra. Vitalij Kowaljow’s rich bass was a pleasure to hear – singing the Marquis of Calatrava as well as Padre Guardiano in this production – while his acting, perhaps by direction, was somewhat wooden. Renato Girolami was an appropriately funny and touching Fra Melitone for rare comic moments.

The chorus continues its extremely impressive work, as tavern guests drinking bottled water, as soldiers and their lovers, and as monks. The orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch, seemed to have very minor coordination issues, especially in the beginning, but overall presented a very strong performance. Especially notable was the bass accompanying Leonora’s Act I aria,  and the clarinet that plays the important themes throughout.

One of the few caveats of the production is the need to lower the curtain at every scene change, as the almost omnipresent table is the only constant of the set. While the pauses are brief, they are long enough to break the audience ’s concentration at times as the light would dimly come up which tempts some in the audience to start whispering.

The sets are often simple but geometric and sometimes architecturally impressive, as in the camp scene in Act III. The singers and chorus members were extremely well rehearsed in their choreographed movements throughout. The most enduring image is that of a pile of large white crosses in the last scene, representing Leonora’s hermitage which clearly does not offer her any lasting peace as her first cry for peace is uttered as she struggles to emerge from under the piles. Leonora dies of oppression from both her family and her religion, while her lover remains an outcast before and after the opera.