San Francisco Opera's new production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, directed by Ron Daniels, opened last Wednesday. They used the revised 1869 version and not the 1862 version that premiered in St. Petersburg. In this revised version Don Alvaro does not throw himself off a cliff, and there is something of a sense of hope despite the demise of the other two main characters.
The premiere of this new production was rather fraught with problems. Since there are so many scenes and so many set changes, curtains were often employed to hide the various changes. After Act I Scene i, Catherine Cook (Curra) and a fancy chair got caught on the wrong side of the curtain. Cook handled this well, hiding up against the curtain, and since her costume was the same color as the curtain, she was fairly discreet until she ducked under it. Other lapses in the professionalism behind the scenes were striking. The people backstage were far too loud. At the end of Act I Scene iii of La Forza there is a beautiful organ solo, and this was marred by a woman's voice backstage who clearly said "Standby." Moreover, during the last few moments of the sublimely quiet final scene, talking from backstage was audible.
The synopsis printed in the program was rife with oversights, both in terms of numerous typographical errors and simple plot inaccuracies. For instance, Act II was incorrectly marked as Act I, which anyone could see at first glance. They did manage to correct this by the second performance on Saturday. But worse was the plain misinformation. Don Alvaro does not appear in Act I Scene ii at all, yet the synopsis read "The young villagers welcome the travelers (Alvaro and Leonora in disguise)..." Also, for Act I Scene iii, the synopsis read "Frightened and alone, Leonora prays that the Virgin will not abandon her. Because she is not a woman, she's not permitted to enter the monastery." This editorial sloppiness seems to betray an overdependence on spell check and a general dearth of competence.
Both Roland Aeschlimann's set and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's costumes were vulgar. First there was this odd progression from black and more traditional in the first act, to more modern grey and camouflage in the second act, then to dirty white at the end. As for the actual set, the toppled-over triumphal arch in the first two scenes, the mess of oversized jacks in Act II, and the enormous white sculpture of 3 beams meant to be Leonara's cave were all a bit silly. The costumes were fine until we got to the vivandières in Act II, who were recast as prostitutes and had punky hairstyles and dramatic white makeup on their faces and exposed breasts. The nipples on Preziosilla's red leather vinyl corset were slightly gratuitous as well.
The whole production was overwrought and ponderous. The recorded sounds of bombs, bullets, and machine gun fire during the battle in Act II was unnecessary, there is plenty of noise being generated by the orchestra. Also, why have the chorus try to dance around in the dark during the patrol chorus of in the same act? They failed to be together with each other or the orchestra during the working rehearsal, the opening performance, and last Saturday's matinee.
Soprano Andrea Gruber was perhaps not the best choice for Leonora. Her vibrato lacks control, and her gasping is audible from the very back of the opera house. She lacked acting skills as well, during Saturdays' performance her robes got tucked up in her belt, showing an uncomely amount of thigh and calf. With her back toward the audience, she tried to fix her costume, instead of simply letting it go. Tenor Vladimir Kuzmenko was, however, great as Don Alvaro. His voice is huge, but he shows a lot more control than Gruber. Željko Lučić was also very good as Don Carlo di Vargas, and his duets with Kuzmenko were some of the best moments of the opera.
Nicola Luisotti conducted with great energy, and the orchestra played very well. This opera has a beautiful overture, a good deal of lovely music, and the ending has a certain remarkable stillness.