The fatalism that pervades the Verdi’s La forza del destino is mostly incongruous with our rationalist times, as is the idea of spiritual redemption. However, although destiny steers the characters in Forza towards unlikely chance encounters, their motives ­– prejudice, hatred, love, revenge – remain ageless. The Marquis of Calatrava considers the half-Incan Don Alvaro unworthy of his daughter Leonora. While trying to elope with her, Alvaro’s pistol goes off accidentally, killing the Marquis, who curses Leonora with his dying breath. The couple flee, but lose each other. Leonora's brother, Don Carlo, bent on avenging his father, hunts them down. When the three of them meet at a monastery where, unaware of each other, the lovers are seeking peace in religious life, only Alvaro survives the bloody encounter. In Dutch National Opera’s season opener, director Christof Loy does not tamper with the storyline, which bounds across time and borders. He trusts the music to pump real blood into the characters, which it does, thanks to the imaginative and assured conductor Michele Mariotti.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora) James Creswell (Il marchese di Calatrava) and the DNO Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

Tackling the work for the first time, Mariotti has persuasive ideas about what he wants it to convey. With touches of rubato and dynamic shading he kept track of the changing moods in this kaleidoscopic masterpiece. The mixed-era costumes stress the timelessness of the emotions driving the plot. The set is a stately interior which serves as the Calatrava mansion, the inn and the monastery in Spain, and opens up onto a hilly landscape for the Italian battle scenes. A sea of motley humanity passes through its colour-drained walls, and both private and collective scenes are enhanced with well-crafted supporting roles. Curra, Leonora’s maid, is none other than soprano Roberta Alexander, who commands the stage the second she appears. The fine bass James Creswell dies too soon as the Marquis and Carlo Bosi is a lovable Trabuco, the peddler, with unforced diction. Through their various transformations, from tavern patrons to soldiers to beggars, the in-house chorus displayed great versatility in text colouring. At times the sheer mass of people defeated Loy. At the inn the block of carousers never thawed into separate clusters. The dense crowd on the battle camp, on the other hand, was galvanised by male dancers twirling their top hats to the tarantella. Preziosilla the gypsy ends the party with her rousing “Rataplan”, here staged as a shell-shocked reaction to the sound of military drums. The horror march is one example of Loy’s character insight, as is Melitone's sadistic soup-slurping in front of the waiting hungry.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora)
© Monika Rittershaus

Giving us the complete revised version of 1869, Mariotti led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in a clearly delineated performance, often touching in its lovingly applied detail. Fast was very brisk, though always sure-footed, hurtling along like the hunted figures onstage. In contrast, the instrumental solos got to bask in their melodies, together with the public. Spare use of fortissimo meant that it thundered all the more loudly when it mattered, as when the monks fulminate a curse on whoever disturbs Leonora’s solitude. Wistful choruses, glittery dances, a witty flourish at end of the inn scene – Mariotti’s conducting was richly descriptive. Among the singers, only baritone Alessandro Corbelli as the crusty Friar Melitone matched his interpretative refinement, with perfect projection, perfect phrasing, and spotless comic timing. Alas, some of the dramatic tension seeped out of the orchestra at the end, making the calamitous but redemptive ending sound smaller than it could have been.

Roberto Aronica (Alvaro) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora)
© Monika Rittershaus

Forza is a casting migraine. This run features the reposed, velvety Padre Guardiano of Vitalij Kowaljow. Veronica Simeoni, a charming dancer, is miscast as Preziosilla. Her mezzo-soprano is too light for the role and thus unfairly challenged by the coloratura and the leaps above the staff. Soft, sustained lines are not his strong suit, but tenor Roberto Aronica delivered those all-important bright, trumpeting top notes. Alvaro’s deep tragedy is that, although immensely talented, he only achieves success, in battle, under an assumed name that hides his racial background. Aronica only delved into this frustration in the final act. His collisions with baritone Franco Vassallo, however, left the stage shaking with vocal gunpowder.

Franco Vassallo (Carlo) and Roberto Aronica (Alvaro)
© Monika Rittershaus

Vassallo, playing Carlo as a rapidly ageing – and raging – alcoholic, tended to overcover in his bottom register, but had reliable, punchy high notes. He also sang a thoughtfully phrased “Urna fatale”. Eva-Maria Westbroek was an intense Leonora, a woman damaged by her family, but still attached to it. Vocally, she thrived in anguished, feverish moments, such as when reaching the monastery exhausted. Westbroek has the heroic volume and linguistic affinity for the role, and most of her forte high notes hit home, but the long, ascending lines, embodying Leonora’s yearning for peace of mind, were tense and flickered with vibrato.

Reservations aside, a Forza with so many musical pluses and such a perceptive staging must be warmly recommended.