Nights at the opera like this come along once in a blue moon. A Verdi score packed with great music, populated by big names, big voices and big personalities. And no cancellations. The foyers buzzed. Even grizzled critics were purring. It’s a rare thing for the stars to align as dazzlingly as they do for the Royal Opera’s new La forza del destino. No wonder it’s a red hot ticket, leading to ridiculous four-figure sums on third party websites and rumours of patrons having their ROH Friendship revoked. On opening night, much of the singing was priceless.

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The last time Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann trod the Covent Garden boards together was way back in 2008, forming a memorable triumvirate with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in La traviata. This Forza trumps even that night, largely because the casting demands are wider and deeper in this sprawling opera. Even minor roles have been luxuriously cast: Roberta Alexander, no less, as Leonora’s maid; and veteran bass Robert Lloyd popping up as a nasal Marquis of Calatrava, a role he first sang here in 1973! It’s almost fantasy casting, the exception being Preziosilla, but then mezzos rarely take on the rabble-rousing gypsy once they reach star status.

This was Netrebko’s role debut as Leonora and it fits her like a glove. The laser-like top to her spinto pins you to your seat and she spins phrases like there’s no tomorrow. There’s a vampish quality to her inky lower register which suggests she could even tackle mezzo roles like Eboli if she fancied it. She’s sometimes inclined to chew the scenery, her portrayal is so committed. The scene at the monastery, with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s gnarly Padre Guardiano, was thrilling. “Pace, pace, mio Dio”, Leonora’s prayer to find peace in death, was equally magnificent.

Anna Netrebko (Leonora) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Anna Netrebko (Leonora) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Once Leonora is packed off to life as a hermit, the evening is all about the three tenor–baritone duets. Don Alvaro is the lover with whom Leonora planned to elope, before he accidentally kills her father (a moment caught in slow-motion video projections), while Don Carlo is her brother who spends the evening hunting him down. Kaufmann has sung Alvaro opposite Ludovic Tézier’s Carlo before in Munich. It really is a special partnership, recalling the likes of Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini back in the golden era of the 1950s. Their voices blend like coffee and cream and each somehow sparks dramatic life into the other as the two characters goad each other on in pursuit of vengeance.

A notoriously slow starter, Kaufmann hit the ground running here, leaping through the window with swagger, launching into a full flow of bronzed tone. His use of heady mezza voce was limited to the duet with Carlo after Alvaro has been wounded in battle; elsewhere there was plenty of muscle. Tézier is Verdi baritone gold. “Urna fatale”, his aria where Carlo is torn between loyalty to his new-found friend and suspicion that he might be Leonora’s seducer, was phrased in long aristocratic lines of burnished tone.

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Ludovic Tézier (Don Carlo) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Jonas Kaufmann (Don Alvaro) and Ludovic Tézier (Don Carlo)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Furlanetto’s noble Padre was joined in the monastery by Alessandro Corbelli, a comic scene-stealer as the irascible Fra Melitone, who sang this production when it was unveiled in Amsterdam in 2017. Another singer from that premiere appeared here; Veronica Simeoni doesn't really have the voice for the rabble-rousing Preziosilla. In the opening scene of Act 2, she punched out the notes but was largely firing blanks. She’s certainly got charisma and was better in her second scene, as the belly-dancing fortune-teller whips up the chorus in praise of the military life, searchlights scouring the stage to indicate the horrors of war.

Antonio Pappano led a pulsating account of Verdi’s vivid score with only a few lapses of pit–stage coordination as singers pushed ahead. The ROH strings ratcheted up the searing intensity when required and the clarinet solo which opens Act 3 was fat and juicy. The Chorus sang ebulliently, throwing itself gamely into Otto Pichler's song-and-dance choreography.

Veronica Simeoni (Preziosilla) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Veronica Simeoni (Preziosilla) and Anna Netrebko (Leonora)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

And Christof Loy’s production? Inoffensive but unmemorable. It’s a daft plot – less driven by destiny than by a series of outrageous coincidences – but Loy plays it straight. A hint of psychological depth is promised in the overture, where we see Leonora and Don Carlo as children, brother intimidating sister, then she cradling her other brother – who died, we learn from Loy's note – in imitation of the Pietà. It also shows Don Carlo leaving the family home before the night of his father's fatal accident. Much of the action plays out in the Calatrava mansion, a wall sliding away to reveal a giant crucifix. Christian Schmidt’s designs intermingle eras, like a lucky dip in the dressing-up box, but not unhappily so. The most striking image is when Leonora is offered refuge by the monks and she is cloaked in blue like the Madonna in front of a sea of candles. But this was an evening less about the staging than the singing, which was unforgettable.

*****