“A co-production with Metropolitan Opera”: five words which probably explain why Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera is – for him – a tame affair. Bieito, who grew up not far from Guernica, sets the action – quite reasonably – in the Spanish Civil War. Opera’s answer to Quentin Tarantino offers a grim, grey reading, which is unlikely to ruffle too many feathers in New York. Strong musical performances kick life into proceedings, but much of the evening was dramatically inert.

James Cresswell (Padre Guardiano) and Tamara Wilson (Leonora) © Robert Workman
James Cresswell (Padre Guardiano) and Tamara Wilson (Leonora)
© Robert Workman

A dagger casts the shadow of a cross on ENO’s programme cover. In the opera, Leonora turns to religion for shelter after her lover accidentally shoots her father when he interrupts their elopement. Avoiding her vengeful brother, she arrives at Our Lady of the Angels. In Franco’s Spain, however, the church offers no solace, only chains and a barbed wire crown of thorns with which Leonora eventually strangles herself in Act IV, Bieito thus denying Verdi’s heroine salvation.

Rebecca Ringst’s set is drained of colour, save a couple of flags of Franco’s Spain, with white façades revolved and tilted, acting as a panel for video projections of wartime imagery. The brief prelude from the original 1862 St Petersburg score denied us the usual overture, plunging us straight into the action. Plunged is a bit of an exaggeration, for the action is severely limited. Throughout, there is a deliberate lack of contact between principals. The Marquis of Calatrava and his daughter never look at each other – this is a family already torn asunder. More damaging is the lack of life-saving action in Act III. Alvaro never rescues Carlo from his would-be assassins, while the off-stage battle where Carlo repays this debt finds both characters rooted to the spot, several feet apart. The surgeon diagnoses the injured Alvaro from afar.

Calixto Bieito's production of <i>The Force of Destiny</i> © Robert Workman
Calixto Bieito's production of The Force of Destiny
© Robert Workman

Bieito doesn’t help his singers. Leonora and Alvaro sing at each other across the dining table, rather than out into the auditorium, before their intended elopement. Alvaro begins his aria wedged halfway through a window frame in a tilted façade. And poor Don Carlo’s song where he pretends to be a student is all but drowned out by the ripping of pages from books (presumably a reference to book burning in Franco’s Spain).

However, in Bieito’s hands the depiction of the inhumanity of war is telling. The central tableau in Act III (the scene based on Schiller’s Wallenstein’s Camp) has soldiers mocking starving refugees and Rinat Shaham’s feisty Preziosilla – a dangerous fanatic rather than a gypsy – kicking a pregnant woman before the stylised ritual shooting of prisoners of war during “Rataplan”. For once, Fra Melitone’s outburst against the shameful goings-on seems entirely justified. Andrew Shore played the irascible monk to perfection, flinging his ‘charitable’ gruel to the ground in exasperation.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Don Alvaro) © Robert Workman
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Don Alvaro)
© Robert Workman

The singers cope admirably. Tamara Wilson, making her UK debut, made a great impression. Hers is a huge spinto voice, with terrific ‘blade’ to cut across the orchestra. Both the monastery scene and the final act’s “Pace, pace, mio Dio” found her sailing through big, arching phrases. I’ve long enjoyed Gwyn Hughes Jones in Puccini and Verdi. His heroic, Italianate sound suited the role of Don Alvaro perfectly, with a very decent account of “O tu che in seno agli angeli”. Anthony Michaels-Moore is a fine Verdi stylist, but his baritone no longer has the amplitude in its lower reaches and although all the top notes were there, they were a struggle. His bloodied, crazed Don Carlo of Act IV perfectly captured how his character had been driven to insanity. James Cresswell’s well-projected, sepulchral bass made Padre Guardiano’s music a joy, even if Bieito’s depiction made him a less than comforting father figure. Unstinting praise for ENO’s Chorus, particularly the men who sent Leonora to her sanctuary with thrilling intensity.

Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla) and Anthony Michaels-Moore (Don Carlo) © Robert Workman
Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla) and Anthony Michaels-Moore (Don Carlo)
© Robert Workman

Mark Wigglesworth drew spirited playing from the orchestra, brass on solid form and a silky clarinet solo before Alvaro’s scena. Much as I love Verdi’s opera, the score does tend to sprawl. Wigglesworth propelled the action forward admirably (with one brief cut before the final Carlo—Alvaro duet) and with no pause between scenes… until a fatal one after Alvaro and Carlo rush off for their ‘duel’. Here, we waited for stagehands to shunt the façades around just at the point where Verdi’s music really needed to sweep forward into Leonora’s great aria.

My lasting impression is of a production where an interesting concept is translated into a staging which impedes the drama inherent in the score. Musically compromised, dramatically underwhelming, this is not a Forza to welcome with open arms. 

***11