Midnight strikes. Your lover enters through a window, ready to carry you off on a horse. Joy. He calls you an angel, reminds you of his Inca blood, and before you know where you are he’s soaring up to a top B flat (he is a tenor). Now – fatal mistake – your lover has killed your father. Disaster. Vengeance, bloodshed. Verdi’s La forza del destino (1862), of which the events described are only the start, is sometimes described as the composer’s most Shakespearean opera in its mix of high and low, brief comedy and tragedy. The comparison is less than helpful. Shakespeare would have filleted some of the more far-fetched plot coincidences, of which there are many, but that is another discussion.
Christof Loy’s production of La forza, new at the Royal Opera House in 2019, has now been revived in all its teeming and lopsided glory, conducted with wise insight and propulsion by Mark Elder. Presaging the new ambitions of Verdi’s late works, this four-act drama demands the utmost of soloists, chorus and orchestra. It’s excitingly cast here, with terrific choral singing and acting. The production slides around visually but lands, more or less, on a world of mid-20th-century Italian cinema, steeped in handsome religiosity and glittery tat (designed by Christian Schmidt, lighting designer Olaf Winter). Three dumbshows foreshadow the action. People writhe – who can say why – on the dining table. Muleteers and prostitutes bowl in, a touch of Weimar in their apparel. A wholly coherent production is all but impossible with this work. Musically, it thrills.
Woodwind leapt to the fore: never has the alto saxophone sounded so lush and prominent – a novelty, not a complaint
As the offending lover, Alvaro, the American tenor Brian Jagde has all the qualities required: ringing top notes, formidable vocal power, rich lower notes (he started out as a baritone). Leonora was powerfully sung by the American-Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Her fruity tone and wide vibrato can imperil intonation, but the excitement of her fortissimo singing and extreme pianissimos won her noisy cheers from a devoted audience.
The third key role is Carlo, brother to Leonora and frenemy of Alvaro, magnificently sung by the French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis (who, with long hair and beard, bore an uncanny resemblance to Verdi himself). Evgeny Stavinsky, James Creswell, Chanáe Curtis, Vasilisa Berzhanskaya and Rodion Pogossov led the watertight ensemble, with first-rate orchestral playing – notably beautiful woodwind throughout. Submit to La forza del destino’s glories. It doesn’t come round often.
Vladimir Jurowski, loved by British audiences after his stints at Glyndebourne and at the helm of the London Philharmonic (he remains conductor emeritus), is yet more appreciated now his presence here is restricted by commitments elsewhere. He was at the Barbican, fresh from climate protests in Switzerland, for the first of two concerts with his Bayerisches Staatsorchester (Bavarian State Orchestra), part of a tour to celebrate the Munich orchestra’s 500th anniversary. The opening work was a UK premiere: White Interment, a snow-inspired single-movement piece by the well-established Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva (b.1962). Built on mirror-image blocks, the effect is static, claustrophobic, with sustained strings spinning a gauze of sound, woodwind and brass rising up in lone, keening motifs: a quiet blizzard, a sonic abyss.
The Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang was soloist, poised and supple, in Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935). Jurowski, gestures held back and minimal, encouraged her to play as part of the ensemble, immersed in the textures of this revered orchestra. Woodwind leapt to the fore: never has the alto saxophone sounded so lush and prominent – a novelty, not a complaint. A swarm of additional musicians filled the stage for An Alpine Symphony (1915) by Richard Strauss, born in their home city, one-time conductor of the orchestra. The Bavarians’ ascent was a jot quicker, perhaps, than that of their Dresden colleagues, heard last week, but was similarly full of rampant virtuosity and sonic glory.
Strauss excelled at excess. A lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall demonstrated the opposite talent. The French-Armenian violinist Chouchane Siranossian played a programme of Bach and beyond. At its centre was an improvisation on Havun, Havun – “The Bird Was Awake” – by the 10th-century Armenian mystic Krikor Naregatsi. Here was infinity in the palm of Siranossian’s hand, eternity in a metropolitan lunch hour.
Star ratings (out of five)
La forza del destino ★★★★
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Jurowsky ★★★★
Chouchane Siranossian ★★★★
La forza del destino is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 9 October