Destiny, Fate, Providence: different ways of describing the sense of an external agency shaping our ends. Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, based on a Spanish play by Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas, is a sprawling tale in which the characters’ lives are irrevocably shaped by a fatal accident. In Tama Matheson’s exciting new production for Opera Australia, “destiny” is not just an abstract entity: instead, it is visually omnipresent. The curtain went up at the first notes to reveal an enormous skull, which potent symbol of mortality was reinforced by the presence of ominous black-clad females with Latin American death masks who pointed portentously at the human actors. The overture was accompanied by a kind of pantomime of the back story, in which Alvaro and Leonora meet and then are parted by her haughty father, the Marquis. This helped to make sense of the notoriously compacted first act, which plunges into the story at an already critical stage. There was more helpful miming during the bridge into Act II: Alvaro gets shot, an event which explains why he and his beloved, who leave together in Act I, never share the stage again until the last ten minutes of the opera.

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora © Prudence Upton
Svetla Vassileva as Leonora
© Prudence Upton

The most obvious sense of a preternatural guiding hand was provided by the gypsy Preziosilla, played by Rinat Shaham. As written by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi’s librettist, she is no more than a colourful army hanger-on in Acts II and III, one who encourages recruitment and entertains the troops at camp. In this production, she was an omnipresent demiurge, whose cards have forecast doom from the first notes of the overture, and who appeared as a mime in most of the scenes. This personification powerfully facilitated the storytelling: her hand was on Alvaro’s pistol when he threw it down and accidentally shot the Marquis, and later, when the mortal enemies Carlo and Alvaro unknowingly swear friendship to each other in Act III, her mocking laughter made us aware of the fatal irony of the gesture. In her coloratura vocal scenes, Shaham was the stand-out in a generally excellent cast: she was both dramatically compelling and vocally assured, skiting effortlessly up to a top B a couple of times.

To counterbalance the death focus, Mark Thompson’s stage design also made much of the strong Christian symbolism in the story: there was an enormous statue of the Virgin in Act II and an equally large Crucifix in Act IV. In Verdi’s revised version (first performed at La Scala in 1869), Alvaro is turned from despair by the dying Leonora’s entreaties, and is reconciled with God. By reverting to the more rarely performed original ending (Petersburg, 1862) for the current production, a very different trajectory is given to the story – Alvaro rejects religion and hurls himself to his death. His final blasphemous action had a certain shock value, although on balance I find the less brutal second ending both musically and dramatically more satisfying.

Scenically, the Act II finale, in which Leonora is inducted into the monastery as a hermit, was wonderful: serried ranks of candle-carrying monks were gradually infiltrated by the veiled female harbingers of doom. As the Padre Guardiano (a solid if unspectacular Giacomo Prestia) pronounced his anathemas, the monk assisting Leonora dropped his cowl to reveal the murdered Marquis. This magnificent coup de théâtre revealed to us the depth of Leonora’s psychic conflict. Not every scene came up to this level: Carlo’s monologue in Act III, for instance, was rather unimaginatively set down stage in front of a simple backcloth.

In terms of singers, my other favourites (besides Shaham) were Jonathan Summers, a powerful Carlo, and Warwick Fyfe as Fra Melitone, who demonstrated how to maintain line and tone without sacrificing the comedy of his role. Sian Pendry and Kanen Breen were fine in their smaller parts, and the death of the Marquis in Act I sadly robbed us of the chance to hear more of Richard Anderson. As for the two principals, there was much excellent acting from Svetla Vassileva as Leonora, although personally I wasn’t enamoured of her voice when singing full throttle in alt (at a quiet dynamic, it was much more appealing). Riccardo Massi’s Don Alvaro grew on me: although not possessing the raw vocal power ideal for this most demanding of roles, he hit all his B flats comfortably, and even at the end was not showing audible signs of strain. The chorus was excellent, with the Rataplan number really tight in both pitch and rhythm. The orchestra had its dodgy moments (e.g. the cello obbligato in “Me pellegrina ed orfana”), but generally responded well to the direction of Andrea Licata. The performance ran a good fifteen minutes longer than announced – perhaps things will tighten up later in the run.

****1