La Forza del Destino at Bristol Hippodrome

La Forza del Destino – the Force of Destiny – isn’t an opera I’d ever heard of before but some of the music from it is instantly recognisable. Embarrassingly, that’s apparently because I’ve heard it in adverts, notably Stella Artois in the 1990’s. What I’d missed is how incredibly, fantastically, hauntingly beautiful the main theme is and hearing it played by the full orchestra last night was something very special. Coupled with the visual beauty of this production, and throwing into the mix the absolutely awesome voice of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Donna Leonara, I am almost lost for words.

The set is worth a particular mention. I had been told that WNO are very proud of their new ‘Verdi Machine’ set and it is pretty amazing. It consists of three interlocked frames which are hinged and on wheels. They contain a whole world of trickery though, and as they are moved on stage we are taken in and out of different rooms, environments and scenarios with hidden spaces, holes allowing glimpses into things beyond, hanging puppets, stairs and so much more with the help of projected images and lighting.

This production was spectacular from the start with Destiny herself appearing on stage in full gothic black-lace-and-cloak splendour in front of projected images of turning wheels and a pistol forever falling on its route to accidental discharge and all the consequences and turns of fate that followed. The colour scheme was mostly monochrome and reds, with the notable exception of the hectic bright colours in disturbing scenes representing the insanity of war.

The sheer numbers of people on stage was also striking: the chorus was huge. In the carpark on the way home I heard someone say they’d counted 61 people. The coordination of all the moving parts, stamping feet in complex military-style manoeuvres or milling crowds, was spectacular and the sound of all those huge voices filling the room spine-tingling.

Donna Leonara’s wasn’t the only character with an amazing voice (and great arias) of course, but that goes without saying. I am still very much a beginner with opera though and until now couldn’t necessarily distinguish one soprano from another, but there was a quality to her voice that I loved. It was also good to see Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Don Alvaro, having also seen him this week as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca; he was perfect in both roles.

When I reviewed Tosca a few days ago I said that my tastes were more for the frivolous and jolly rather than the melodramatic. I revise that opinion now: there is nothing jolly about La Forza del Destino at all, it is bleak and the only ray of light is with Don Alvaro’s final redemption in God as his beloved dies in his arms along with her brother. That might have been a solace to some, particular at the times this was written: I could see no comfort in that, particularly given the blows that Destiny (or God, as you wish) had dealt him. However I really would describe seeing this production of this opera as one of the most beautiful and moving experiences I have ever had. I loved it. Given the opportunity I would go to see this again and again and again.

I am looking forward to seeing more of the WNO’s Verdi trilogy in Spring 2019. In the meantime they will be back in Bristol in the autumn with War and Peace, La Cenerentola (based on Cinderella) and La Traviata. I can’t wait!


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