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Dramatic Deficits

November 2, 2005

Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) Andrea Gruber (Donna Leonora di Vargas)

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By Michael Zwiebach

The new production of La forza del destino that the San Francisco Opera presented on Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House is literally a "concept." It exists as design and as a director's essay in the program, but not as fully realized drama. The performances of the principals coexisted with the decor and costumes, but the elements never meshed into a coherent whole. The musical side of this Forza, strongly led by newcomer Nicola Luisotti, was largely excellent, providing several high points. The dramatic side was inert.

The challenge of this Verdi opera is tailor-made for an issues-oriented director. Everybody agrees that the musical drama is more than the sum of a few outrageous coincidences; our question is, what gives these fateful occurences significance? And what draws the disparate events and multiple perspectives of this opera together? In director Ron Daniels' view, the drama enacts the progressive disintegration of 18th century Spanish aristocracy, symbolized by the characters' rigid and self-destructive adherence to ancient codes of honor, which themselves become denatured in the course of the action. The death of the bigoted, autocratic Marchese de Calatrava in the first act becomes metaphorically amplified in the violence and dislocation of the war scenes. In the amoral chaos that ensues, identity becomes fluid and changeable. Daniels insists on taking the process to the ultimate metaphorical level, where "time and place cease to exist."

In pursuit of this grand theory, the designers gradually removed the specificity of 18th century Spain, stripping down the settings until, in the final act, time and place ceased to exist. The last scene was dominated by a huge cross, canted at an angle, making it a practicable staircase that Leonora used in "Pace, pace, mio Dio." The costumes in this last scene were all white linen, contrasting, in their weightlessness, with the black plastic raincoat and the form-defining clothes of Preziosilla and the other camp-followers in the war scenes. The production looked great. (Costumes were by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer; sets by Roland Aeschlimann.)

Željko Lučić (Don Carlo di Vargas)
Jill Grove (Preziosilla)

Photos by Terrence McCarthy

But it all went for nothing because the work that Daniels did with the singers seemed so haphazard. There was no detail in the dramatic performances. Here's a single example: Carlo, the Marchese's son, and Alvaro, his nemesis, spent a lot of time with weapons in their hands, usually swords. You might think that they would have been taught how to handle weapons, but they were not. They trotted off for their final duel carrying their swords carefully before them, like boys in an egg-and-spoon race. Gone was even the illusion that they might be military men. Without that grounding in reality, the men, Željko Lučić (Carlo), especially, had no chance of creating believable characters.

Daniels' production favored singers with ideas of their own. Andrea Gruber, as Leonora, was marginally successful. She has a large dramatic soprano, although her tone and vibrato were a bit ragged. Gruber's phrasing and dynamics were a little one-sided and urgent, pressing the line forward. However, she was a totally committed actor, especially in the extraordinary "Pace, pace."

Vladimir Kuzmenko, as Leonora's lover, Alvaro, seemed confused in the first scene. Entering to lead Leonora away in an elopement, he hardly looked at her. His lines were fractured by untimely breaths and his pitch was a little wayward. He recovered and sang better after that. Like Gruber, his voice has power to spare, easily riding over the exuberant orchestral playing. He was not a believable Alvaro in any way, but he filled out the musical lines, thrillingly — which is what you pay SFO prices to hear live. He just didn't have the presence of his costars.

A more convincing portrayal

Lučić, as Don Carlo, was vocally more consistent, and if he was a bit monochromatic, that probably had to do with the part he was playing. His voice was supple in the extended upper range of the part. The monologue in which Carlo is tempted to violate his oath in order to find out if his comrade is actually Alvaro in disguise, came off with expressive vocal contrasts and beautiful stretches of legato.

Of the supporting roles, Jill Grove was an outstanding Preziosilla, enlivening scenes which frequently seem too long in the opera house. Vocally varied, she phrased naturally without distorting the rhythm, which is so necessary in that part. Orlin Anastassov was the beneficent Padre Guardiano, with a plush bass and a soothing legato that were sorely needed by the time he showed up. Adler Fellow Lucas Meacham played the touchy, temperamental Friar Melitone, and his energy and physicality may have distracted attention from a well-produced, fulsome bass voice.

On the podium, Luisotti was a vibrant presence. From the stinging upbeat of the opening theme, he had the orchestra on top of the score's rhythms and he consistently brought out the inner string parts. Although broad with his gestures, he gave a precise beat and was strongly supportive of his singers. He could have brought the orchestral volume down at times. Tempos were often quick, but on the other side, he led a properly transcendent finale, and the scene inside the monastery lost none of its faux-religious grandeur in his reading. With the aid of Grove and an exceptionally well-trained chorus, he led a vivid "Rataplan," the rhythms punched out in a challenging tempo. Luisotti's overall grasp of the flow of the score did far more to insure continuity and made the startling contrasts more immediately communicative than did Daniels' abstractions.

(Michael Zwiebach holds a Ph.D. in music history from U.C. Berkeley and lectures on music history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.)

©2005 Michael Zwiebach, all rights reserved