Or how to overcome unbelievable librettos and mushy tenors
by Alan Sherrod
Any opera company that stages Giuseppe Verdiâ’s La Forza del Destino is faced with some undeniable contradictions. On one hand, the mature Verdi wrote some incredibly beautiful musicâ"vocal and orchestral, and both thrilling and theatrically satisfyingâ"for this opera. On the other hand, the marvelous score is forced to transcend a melodramatic plot full of time disconnections, unnecessary side stories, and almost laughably implausible coincidences, even by operatic standards. With those assets and limitations in mind, the Knoxville Opera Company gave its audience what it wanted with its recent production of La Forza del Destinoâ"a remarkably solid production of unmistakably solid Verdi.
How, then, does an opera company deal with an awkward libretto? Music director and conductor Brian Salesky and stage director Carroll Freeman made the wise decision to delete scenes that did nothing to advance the plot. They cut the entire first scene of Act II and the more superfluous crowd scenes in Acts III and IV. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of reducing the scope of the interesting supporting characters Friar Melitone and Preziosilla. What remains is a relatively straightforward, if shortened, expansion on the premise: the Power of Fate.
That premise (perhaps really an overstatement) is put into motion when the two lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, are thwarted in their desire for marriage by her father, the Marquis of Calatrava, who considers Don Alvaroâ’s Incan ancestry undesirable. Their elopement plans are discovered, Don Alvaroâ’s gun goes off, accidentally killing the Marquis, and Leonoraâ’s brother, Don Carlo, vows revenge. The lovers are forced to fleeâ"Don Alvaro into the army and Leonora to a monastery for protection.
Appearing as Leonora was the excellent and dramatically convincing Carter Scott. Scott ably moved between delicate subtlety and real emotional and vocal power. Her Act IV aria â“Pace, pace mio Dioâ” combined both. Tenor Manrico Tadeschiâ’s Don Alvaro seemed to be worried about something he couldnâ’t quite share with the audience. His voice was tight and his diction in the lower ranges was mushy. Only in his high rangeâ"and, oddly, when singing on one kneeâ"could he deliver the clarity expected.
Baritone James Dietsch, as Don Carlo, has a strong and rich voice, and a stature to match; he was perfectly suited for Leonoraâ’s revenge-seeking brother. His Act III aria â“Urna fatale del mio destinoâ” had the power and range it needed. The supporting roles were equally well cast. Bass Andrew Wentzel was a strong, venerable, yet sympathetic Padre Guardino, the Father Superior of the Franciscan monastery where Leonora goes for refuge. In the truncated role of Friar Melitone, Daniel C. Webb gave a gently bumbling comic turn. The gypsy girl, Preziosilla, was captured by a delightfully energetic Joey DiMenno. Memorable, too, was the Knoxville Opera Chorus, which turned in a moving, hauntingly theatrical prayer for the finale of Act II as Leonora goes off to her hermitâ’s grotto.
One fact of life of regional opera is that theatrical sets must often be rented. Depending on whatâ’s available, that can be a risky business for the opera company, a nightmare for the stage director, and an unpleasant experience for the audience. Knoxville Opera has not always been so blessed as it was with the well-designed wing-and-drop set it acquired for this production. The set added the right amount of atmosphere, particularly when it was kept appropriately murky. But it never seemed to complicate the staging or distract the audience.
Salesky proved once again that he is a disciplined, precise, and confident conductor who knows the orchestra, who knows theater, and who knows how to deliver a theatrical experience to an audience. The marvelous opening overture lists the operaâ’s themes and makes theatrical promisesâ"promises that Salesky together with Freeman did everything they could to fulfill.
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