“Abbado, go back to Bologna!” Audiences at Parma’s Teatro Regio are notorious for their severe critical judgments delivered towards singers, conductors or directors. They can make La Scala’s loggionisti look tame. At last night’s opening of the annual Verdi Festival, music director Roberto Abbado was squarely in the firing line, with shouts, boos and whistles every time he took to the pit. Then, at the curtain call, strips of paper printed with their complaints showered the audience. It was all a good deal more animated than Yannis Kokkos’ conservative new production of La forza del destino taking place on stage. 

Marco Spotti (Marchese di Calatrava), Gregory Kunde (Alvaro) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Leonora)
© Roberto Ricci

It was not Abbado’s conducting that stoked their anger. Whilst Roberto’s not as great a Verdian as his late Uncle Claudio (few are), he led an energetic performance, with a crisp, bombastic account of the famous overture and tempi that occasionally pushed his singers faster than they wanted to go. What sections of the audience objected to was the presence of the chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, ousting the Teatro Regio forces from opening night. Their claims that there are plans to merge the Regio with the Teatro Comunale have been denied, but that didn’t stop protests against “the Bolognese coloniser” from fluttering down into the Stalls.

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Leonora)
© Roberto Ricci

Storm clouds were gathering on stage too. Kokkos’ metaphors for the trials and tribulations of the Calatrava family in Forza – thwarted love, a pistol that goes off accidentally, thirst for vengeance – are videos of dark clouds scudding across the sky and scenery at crooked angles. A church and giant cross askew? There must be something awry. Wonky ruins? Death and destruction assured. As Leonora dies, stabbed by her brother who has spent much of the opera hunting down her lover, sure as anything the clouds part and angelic white light floods the stage. Job done, destiny fulfilled.  

Kokkos’ direction is solidly unremarkable, with occasional lapses, such as the Marchese di Calatrava arriving too soon to interrupt the lovers’ escape. He livens up the camp scene on the battleground by dressing dancers in horror masks, but otherwise the staging is pretty much as stated in Piave’s libretto and doesn’t get in the way of some fine performances. 

La forza del destino, Act 3
© Roberto Ricci

Politics aside, the Teatro Comunale orchestra gave a spirited account of this sometimes sprawling opera, given in the usual 1869 revision. The evening was dedicated to the soprano Renata Tebaldi, born 100 years ago and who trained in Parma. Leonora was one of her great roles, putting plenty of pressure on Liudmyla Monastyrska, who headed a fine cast that wouldn’t go amiss on far starrier stages. Monastyrska’s powerful spinto was in strong evidence, rich in tone if not always phrasing in long legato lines. Her Act 1 aria “Me pellegrina ed orfana” was nicely shaped, less so the more famous “Pace, pace, mio Dio” in the last act. But she reined in her large sound for a moving death scene. 

Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Don Carlo) and Gregory Kunde (Don Alvaro)
© Roberto Ricci

Gregory Kunde’s Don Alvaro was not exactly in the first flush of youth. At 68, the American tenor, who made his name in Rossini roles, has enjoyed an Indian summer tackling heavier repertoire. Here, he sounded suitably robust when fired up in his encounters with Amartuvshin Enkhbat’s Don Carlo, but his softer singing sounded very breathy and hollow, almost reduced to crooning in “O tu che in seno agli angeli”. Enkhbat sang with a juicy, rounded tone, his rich baritone filling the theatre with ease. It was too often on the same loud dynamic and his acting is limited, but it’s rare that you’ll hear “Urna fatale del mio destino” sung so gloriously. 

Annalisa Stroppa (Preziosilla) and chorus
© Roberto Ricci

Marko Mimica’s sepulchral bass made for an impressive Padre Guardiano, offset by Roberto de Candia’s irascible Fra Melitone, his comic monk sidekick and very much a prototype for Falstaff. De Candia really got stuck into his monologue chastising the charity-seeking beggars, kicking over the cauldron of soup for good measure. Special mention to Annalisa Stroppa’s Preziosilla, Carmen in a military jacket, warm in tone with plenty of agility, leading the excellent Bolognese chorus in a rousing “Rataplan!” to close Act 3.