Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 16, 18, 26, 29 October, 1, 3, 6 November 2004
Luciano Pavarotti will not allow anyone to mention the name of this opera in his presence, and Forza's reputation is generally bad. For one thing, the work is rather sprawling, and extremely difficult to perform, let alone perform well. The drama makes less sense than Il Trovatore, which, as the Royal Opera's recent performances showed, is also difficult to perform convincingly.
As everyone must surely know by now, this production by the Royal Opera was to have been conducted by Riccardo Muti, one of the great Verdians of all time. After a pathetic argument about two backdrops (if we believe what we are told), Muti walked out, leaving Antonio Pappano to step into the breach and learn the score in three weeks. Pappano in turn cancelled several recordings and a whole series of concerts in Chicago. Poor subscribers, for their loss is our gain. With the exception of two of the singers, there is little to enjoy in this Forza apart from the controlled, evocative, luscious reading of the score by Pappano, brilliantly played and sung by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.
Patrizia Frini's re-staging of La Scala's dreadful production is nearly as bad an import as the Robert Wilson Aida of last year. The action is worse than sluggish - it's non-existent - and the scenery is unbelievably stodgy, rarely resembling any of the things it is meant to. Several scenes were staged in front of a black curtain, the singers lit up with single spotlights, and the effect was amateurish to say the least. I could not help but laugh at the war scene, where cannons were meant to be exploding in a feast of dramatic tension; instead, they went off with a mild popping noise. There was far more excitement outside the theatre provided by the fireworks of Bonfire Night.
The story is too stupid to describe. Suffice it to say that the soprano loves the tenor against her father's wishes, the tenor accidentally kills the father, the lovers flee and are separated, they both become hermits in adjacent hermit-holes, and one day discover the fact. Meanwhile, the avenging brother comes along and avenges. It's not one of Verdi's finest, but the score does have its good points.
As Leonora, Violeta Urmana was even more ravishing than in the recent La Gioconda. The clear star of the evening, Urmana excelled herself with astonishing coloratura displays and a heart-felt portrayal of a difficult character. She rose to the challenge of the opera's only well-known aria, Pace, pace, mio dio with finesse.
The only other convincing member of the cast was Ferruccio Furlanetto as Padre Guardiano (don't ask where he comes into it). His encounter with Leonora in Act 2 was the evening's clear highlight, and his was the only voice with sufficient weight to deal with Verdi's difficult vocal writing.
Ambrogio Maestri and Salvatore Licitra were both appalling in their house debuts. It's hard to say who was worse. Neither of them could sing their notes for the most part, and both descended into the worst kind of operatic declamation and melodramatic arm-waving to express the passion that their voices could not convey. It was Muti's idea to bring these two singers with him to the ROH, and it is to be hoped that he keeps them in Italy from now on.
Preziosilla was badly played by Marie-Ange Todorovitch, again an under-directed and under-powered singer who was cruelly exposed in her house debut, though Fra Melitone was reasonably played by Roberto de Candia. The chorus and particularly the orchestra saved the day by providing accompaniment of the highest standard.