With a cast headed by Netrebko, Kaufmann and Tézier, the opening night of La forza del destino at Covent Garden was so star-studded that it was described as “the cast of the century”. Unsurprisingly, most reviews focused on the singing, so last night’s performance was a chance to look more closely at Christof Loy’s staging.

Yusuf Eyvasov (Don Alvaro) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Yusuf Eyvasov (Don Alvaro)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Forza is considered a sprawling work, but once you’ve accepted the idea of an episodic plot separated by long intervals, it has two key difficulties. The first is that Don Carlo’s hatred is so all-consuming and immune to reason that one has to question its plausibility. The second is the close of Act 3, which greatly troubled Verdi and was rewritten for the 1869 version used here. Loy provides a neat answer to Carlo’s hatred by giving us a time-slipped view of the Calatrava family home in which a third sibling dies, pièta-style, in Leonora’s arms: Carlo clearly blames his sister and has hated her passionately ever since.

The close of Act 3, marked “Scena animatissima”, features the chorus as a motley collection of Spanish and Italian soldiers, street vendors, starving beggars and passers-by: it’s Preziosilla’s second big chance to rouse the mob to military fervour with her “Rataplan, rataplan”. It’s often staged as a straightforward anti-war protest, but that’s at odds with the music: Loy is emphasising the antipathy by morphing it into a surreal music-hall song-and-dance number. It’s a weird but fascinating idea and it worked for me, particularly since the movement was executed very crisply both by specialist dancers and ordinary chorus members. Otto Pichler’s choreography was colourful and vivid (although one wonders when he will stop using some of the trademarks familiar from Carmen and The Nose). For the whole evening, the chorus turned in fine vocal performances while being as thrilling in their stage movement as I’ve seen.

Christian Schmidt’s designs were idiosyncratic but grew on me. Costumes were vaguely Spanish Civil War, but Schmidt is happy to add splashes of colour from other eras, like the Innkeeper’s blue suit or Preziosilla’s spectacular green belly-dancing outfit. Except for Act 3, the sets are not particularly literal and don’t change much between scenes, but there is a consistency of shape lent by a large doorway towards the right of the stage and there are always just enough cues – a cross here, a prop there – to place you in context.

There’s the occasional directorial misfire (why is Leonora writhing in a fit of religious ecstasy when she is being admitted to her hermitage, and why is Alvaro buying a quickie round the back of the camp from Preziosilla), but broadly, I was carried along by Loy and Schmidt’s staging and direction.

Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The three lead singers may have been replaced, but that left two huge stars who have performed in the whole run: Ferruccio Furlanetto and Alessandro Corbelli. It’s simply a privilege to listen to Furlanetto, whose voice has an unmatched combination of basso profondo warmth laced with steel: his Padre Guardiano is a figure of authority first, albeit one who knows how to console when the mood takes him. Corbelli’s buffo baritone and irrepressible grumpiness made him a gloriously blackly comic Fra Melitone. Aigul Akhmetshina was a superbly alluring Preziosilla, executing her song-and-dance numbers with panache and displaying some great low-register vocal technique along the way. Her voice may be a size too small in ensemble, but that’s hardly surprising given her incredibly young age. She’s a talent to look out for. Carlo Bosi also deserves a mention for a show-stealing pedlar Trabuco.

Before the show, we were begged forgiveness for Yusuf Eyvasov singing in spite of a recent throat infection. While I’d never wish illness on anyone, I think Eyvasov turned this to advantage, throttling back the power slightly and thereby losing a hard edge that I’ve heard from him in the past. This allowed the lyricism in his voice to bloom and turn Don Alvaro into a real romantic lead: his duets with Christopher Maltman’s Don Carlo were riveting. Maltman was in superbly virile voice and clearly relished his persona of smiling assassin.

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Leonora) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Liudmyla Monastyrska (Leonora)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Who would choose to follow Anna Netrebko as Leonora? In any other company, Liudmyla Monastyrka’s performance would have been judged more than acceptable: she has lovely timbre, superb dynamic control from pianissimo right the way up to maximum power and she throws her heart into the role. But there were weaknesses: an over-heavy vibrato that made one question the safety of her intonation and several phrasing misalignments with Pappano and the orchestra (who performed the music beautifully, albeit slightly muted compared to earlier in the run).

The Netrebko bar is a high one: this performance fell a fraction short of Verdi heaven, but the production remains a must-see for whenever it is next revived.

****1