When it comes to opera, they don’t get much gloomier or doomier than Verdi’s epic The Force of Destiny.
There’s forbidden love, a woman who lives alone for eight years in a cave, a furious tale of revenge and a high death toll, even by operatic standards. Tama Matheson has directed a bold production that embraces the darkness in one of Verdi’s more difficult masterpieces.
Designer Mark Thompson’s costumes are richly detailed and his monolithic set pieces imposing. From a gigantic Virgin Mary that you fear will collide with anything in the fly space above to a massive shining skull, this is a production that uses imagery to propel the story forward and remind us there’s a grizzly ending just around the corner.
But the true strength of this production lies in the casting. Svetla Vassileva is in fine voice as Leonora, ringing loud and clear above the orchestra and using the difficult acoustics of the Joan Sutherland Theatre to great effect in her quieter, tender moments. She occasionally lacks subtlety, but the strength of her instrument carries her through. She has the acting chops to match and her heartbreak is palpable throughout.
Riccardo Massi has an effortless top as Don Alvaro and sings with great sensitivity. His acting is solid, but whenever he’s onstage with Vassileva, your eyes are immediately drawn to her. Jonathan Summers is fantastically menacing as Don Carlo and sings with real grunt and Giacomo Prestia delivers a strong vocal performance as Padre Guardiano.
Rinat Shaham is superb as the gypsy Preziosilla. The role here has been expanded to make Preziosilla a kind of mistress of destiny and death. Shaham’s presence and dramatic ability matches her gutsy vocal tone. Plus, she looks fantastic in one of Thompson’s finest costumes, even if her hairstyle is a little Elaine from Seinfeld.
There are also appearances from some of Opera Australia’s finest including Richard Anderson, sounding fantastic as Marchese di Calatrava and Warwick Fyfe in one of the only moments of lightness as Fra Melitone. Kanen Breen makes a brief appearance but again proves why he’s one of Opera Australia’s most valuable assets. His vocal and dramatic versatility is a rare gift to an opera company.
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra are at their best in this production under Andrea Licata’s baton. The overture is rendered beautifully and the entire score is played with both skill and sensitivity.
Yes, it is long. Verdi hasn’t exactly been concise with this one, and there are moments where it can be a little testing. But there’s really not much anybody can do about that. It is, after all, written that way. But it’s a rarely performed Verdi piece with a compelling story and a fantastic score, and this is a production where both are presented fantastically. Plus, it could be years until its performed in Australia again. For that reason alone, this is a must-see for serious opera buffs and serious Verdi buffs.