If the message of Verdi’s La forza del destino is that one’s fate cannot be escaped, the lesson from Opera Holland Park’s first ever production of the opera, directed by Martin Duncan, would seem to be entirely the opposite: that a performance’s destiny can be altered over an evening. Having witnessed a lacklustre Overture and a shaky start to the drama, I would never have believed that this production could then be turned around quite so completely.
The set is the first thing to comes across as uninspiring. A backdrop of scrunched black canvas that does not even run the entire length of the stage feels ineffective at creating the intended vision of dark destiny. The chorus sit on stage and oversee the Overture, which is fine, but their preoccupation with the chairs they carry is disconcerting. Placed in various formations for different scenes, these seats sometimes become necessary props in the drama, but frequently (as in Act One) clutter the stage for no apparent reason.
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Leonora and Peter Auty as Don Alvaro could also get off to stronger starts. Jeffers’ voice lacks lightness, Auty’s is not smooth or rounded enough, and there is insufficient chemistry between the two. As the opera unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the pair’s strengths simply had no opportunity to come to the fore in the first scene, while other aspects of the production also come good.
Left all alone, Jeffers benefits from being able to focus solely on herself in both her Act One and Act Four arias. Her sensitivity derives precisely from the incredible strength in her voice, and her attention to detail in phrasing and expression is exquisite. Act Two also allows the colourful chorus to shine as they are led by Carole Wilson’s fine Preziosilla in a fortune telling session, while a later scene sees Donald Maxwell’s tremendous Melitone struggling to feed them all. The act also finishes powerfully as the chorus become white hooded Dominican monks, with the tableaux they form showing a keen attention to light and shadow and emulating the pictures of the seventeenth century Spanish painter, Francisco De Zurbaran.
Act Three then uses the chairs to better effect. Strung up on ribbons, piled high to emulate barricades, and stained with blood, they say much about the horrors of war, while, with its emphasis on portraying despair, Auty’s voice comes into its own. Acts Three and Four are really made, however, by the sheer potency of the drama, founded on the strength of the singing and of the City of London Sinfonia’s playing, under the baton of Stuart Stratford.
As Don Carlo, Mark Stone’s soul searching over whether he should look at Don Alvaro’s private papers produces some of the most deeply moving singing of the evening. His subsequent confrontation with Alvaro bursts with intensity, and also makes us acutely aware that it remains within Carlo’s power to prevent the tragedy from unfolding. He would only need to make the simple choice not to seek revenge, and yet his inability even to see this as an option is what reinforces the opera’s central messages concerning inevitability.
By the time of the final deaths it is hard to picture this highly potent opera being performed any more powerfully. If it is your destiny to see this production, you should be very glad of your fate.