The title of Verdi's La forza del destino has always seemed to me to be something of a misnomer: there's a lot of force going on, but it's the force of racism, hatred, remorse and revenge: it's not obvious how destiny comes into it. For director Martin Kušej, the word "destiny" is a cipher for the force of the Catholic Church, or rather “every religion which has created and perverted a community of power”. His current production at Bayerische Staatsoper is an intelligent and imaginative rendering of this concept.

Anja Harteros (Leonora) © Wilfried Hösl
Anja Harteros (Leonora)
© Wilfried Hösl

The benevolent monk Padre Guardiano is none other than the reincarnation of Leonora's authoritarian father, both sung by the same bass, the smooth-voiced Vitalij Kowaljow. His sidekick Fra Melitone, sung by Ambrogio Maestri (a piece of luxury casting if ever there was one, for a relatively minor role) has been seen before as the Calatrava family chaplain. Guardiano's monks look alarmingly like a portrait of a whole series of Leonora's ancestors, while her rocky hermitage is built of broken crosses. The war scenes in Act III are given a religious overtone, being set in the broken shell of an Abu Ghraib-like camp: here is the one area where a relatively restrained production lets rip to bring a brilliant depiction of the squalor and seediness that war brings.

Heading the cast were the dream team of Anja Harteros as Leonora and Jonas Kaufmann as her lover Don Alvaro. Both displayed the qualities that make them so sought after: fabulous sounding timbre, carefully turned phrasing, dramatic acting and voices that are rock solid on every note – however high, however low, however long, however part of a complex run. But the evening belonged to Harteros, some of whose singing was simply breathtaking. Her plea to God not to abandon her ("Pièta di me, Signore, Deh non m'abandonnar") was one of the most extraordinary fade-to-black pianissimi I think I've ever heard.

Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro) and Anja Harteros (Leonora) © Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro) and Anja Harteros (Leonora)
© Wilfried Hösl

But in spite of all this quality, strangely, the lovers' meeting in Act I Scene 1, usually such a powerful cauldron of conflicted emotions, failed to gel. To a large extent, this was because the orchestra wasn't quite on the money. There was nothing wrong with conductor Asher Fisch's aspirations: his tempi were good, dynamic control and balance were all in order. But the playing lacked bite: especially in that scene, the score of La forza del destino is heavily accented and the orchestra was simply not together enough to deliver a punch. The same was true of the chorus at the roadside inn of Scene 2: Nadia Krasteva was an engaging, knowing Preziosilla, but the chorus was rather ragged. They came into their own, however, in the religious choruses, where the deep inflections of Russian liturgy (Forza was premiered in St Petersburg) calmed and stirred the soul.

Vitalij Kowaljow (Padre Guardiano) and Anja Harteros (Leonora) © Wilfried Hösl
Vitalij Kowaljow (Padre Guardiano) and Anja Harteros (Leonora)
© Wilfried Hösl

And from then on, the performance kept getting better. Simone Piazzola, replacing Ludovic Tézier, gave a thrilling rendering of the vengeful Carlo. Most of the role consists of duets with Alvaro: Piazzola has a quite tenor-like baritone, very clear and powerful at the top of the range, and therefore blends with Kaufmann's rather baritonal tenor rather than contrasting with it. Their adversarial scene in Act IV, where the two enemies locked inextricably together, was spellbinding. Piazzola may not quite have Kaufmann's utter solidity across the range, but he proved a more than worthy partner.

The closing trio highlighted once more what a wonderful set of voices we were listening to, finishing a memorable production and a wonderful evening's opera which, with a better orchestral performance, would have been an unforgettable one.