Remember that bit at the end of La forza del destino, where the Marquis of Calatrava and Don Carlo welcome Leonora back into the bosom of their family? You don't? Then you've clearly dodged a bullet in missing Andreas Homoki's wilful staging at Oper Zürich. By the end of Verdi's opera, all three characters are dead, long since in the case of the Marquis whose accidental death at the end of Act 1 sparks the whole revenge tragedy. Yet, Homoki resurrects him as Padre Guardiano – without a hint of ecclesiastical garb – turning the opera into Leonora's nightmare fantasy.

Christof Fischesser, George Petean (Carlo), Hibla Gerzmava (Leonora) and Marcelo Puente (Alvaro) © Monika Rittershaus
Christof Fischesser, George Petean (Carlo), Hibla Gerzmava (Leonora) and Marcelo Puente (Alvaro)
© Monika Rittershaus

Hartmut Meyer's abstract set is like a strip of grey road with a white line down the middle, folding to form a giant cube or opening out like a doorway. Homoki often plants characters into scenes in which they do not feature: Carlos is seen embracing Leonora as the overture ends; Carlos pops up at the monastery; Leonora goes awol from her hermit's cave to stalk the Act 3 prelude where, as bad luck would have it, she just keeps missing Alvaro by a fraction of a bar. “Long live this merry company,” sings Carlo... to an empty stage.

J'Nai Bridges (Preziosilla) and Chorus © Monika Rittershaus
J'Nai Bridges (Preziosilla) and Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

The predatory chorus is white-faced, with shocks of red hair, feeding Homoki's clown fixation, grotesques in red and black Spanish costumes. In the monastery, monks' robes are quickly thrown off as the chorus again haunts and taunts Leonora. The minor roles of Preziosilla, Fra Melitone and Trabuco are expanded into a trio not quite manipulating the action, but certainly prowling around its edges. They treat the protagonists like puppets. David Pountney, in his excellent recent production for Welsh National Opera, similarly has Preziosilla as puppet-mistress, a Fate figure dominating the action, but done with much greater conviction and coherence. Here, Preziosilla and the women wave firearms during the “Rataplan” chorus; Trabuco sings his peddlar song whilst threatening Carlo with a gun; and Melitone harangues the crowd brandishing the same pistol. “The world has gone mad,” the monk laments. Indeed. Homoki's staging holds Verdi at gunpoint, deliberately obscuring the plot. Does Leonora fantasise that Padre Guardiano is her father? When she reveals who she is, the Padre/Calatrava clutches his wound and collapses just as he did in Act 1. And does she really survive at the end? Or are Carlo and Calatrava leading Leonora heavenwards? I was past the point of caring.

Christof Fischesser (Calatrava/Padre Guardiano) and Hibla Gerzmava (Leonora) © Monika Rittershaus
Christof Fischesser (Calatrava/Padre Guardiano) and Hibla Gerzmava (Leonora)
© Monika Rittershaus

But what a Leonora! Hibla Gerzmava sang at full throttle, phrases sculpted in great long arcs in a magnificent account of “Pace, pace mio Dio!”, with rock solid pianissimos. The Russian soprano has a big sound, as rich and dark as cherry molasses, although, at 1200 seats, Zürich is one of the smaller international houses. Next season, Anja Harteros – the leading Leonora of our day – stars in the first revival, but I cannot imagine her surpassing Gerzmava here.

Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente has an exciting, baritonal sound as Don Alvaro, Leonora's secret lover. He's a bit of a belter though, with excessive vibrato and forcing a clotted or choked quality to the voice. George Petean was stronger, a bullish Carlo with little dynamic nuance and choppy phrasing in “Urna fatale” but he rallied to a splendid conclusion to his cabaletta where he pulled out all the stops. His three duets with Puente were often thrilling, two big voices really going for it.

Gezim Myshketa (Melitone), J'Nai Bridges (Preziosilla) and Jamez McCorkle (Trabuco) © Monika Rittershaus
Gezim Myshketa (Melitone), J'Nai Bridges (Preziosilla) and Jamez McCorkle (Trabuco)
© Monika Rittershaus

Christof Fischesser's bass was woolly as Marquis/Padre Guardiano and J'Nai Bridges gingerly snatched at top notes as Preziosilla, but Gezim Myshketa's Melitone was splendid. The Albanian is a new name to me and stepped into this production at short notice, but his baritone was firm and resonant as the irascible monk. He'd make a super Falstaff.

Fabio Luisi led a bracing account of the score, happily uncut. The fiery overture was barnstorming, despite a very slow middle section introducing Leonora's motif. The Chorus was not always perfectly together, but sang lustily in their menacing roles.

Musically, a rewarding Forza, but Homoki's staging is best forgotten.

 

Mark's accommodation on this trip was sponsored by Oper Zürich

***11