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Washington National Opera offers new take on Verdi's 'Forza'

If it is your destiny to be anywhere near the Kennedy Center during the next couple of weeks, check out Washington National Opera's new production of Verdi's "La forza del destino." The force of it may surprise you -- and quite possibly thrill, confound, amuse or annoy you, too. You will certainly not be unaffected.

I can well imagine opera fans raising any number of objections to director Francesca Zambello's concept (I've got one or two of them myself). But at Saturday night's opener, I found it easy to jump onto the eventful ride and let the qualms slip away, especially since the performance, featuring notable company debuts onstage and in the pit, was so electric.

"Forza" boasts one of Verdi's greatest scores, if not one of the easiest plots to swallow (it shares a few credulity issues with "Il Trovatore"). In the days before supertitles, audiences pretty much took librettos in stride. Now, people tend to get the giggles, as they often did Saturday, when translations pop up on a screen, ruining the mood. Pity.

This story here revolves around honor, an issue that has hardly disappeared since the 1835 Spanish play (set in the 18th century) that inspired Verdi three decades later. To this day, we hear of horrid honor killings and attempts to cleanse family shame, just the sort of thing that goes on in the opera.

Moving the action into more or less present-day is one way to keep this aspect of "Forza" fresh. The WNO staging, designed by Peter J. Davison and costumed by Catherine Zuber, goes all out with the contemporary angle. Some of it gets tacky or goes overboard, to be sure, but we're not talking Eurotrash here.

Once past the cold elegance of the first scene, where the Marquis of Calatrava tries to keep daughter Leonora from the clutches of her supposedly inferior lover Alvaro, the set reveals a seedy urban world filled with lowlifes, sex trade and war.

The wild, neon-lit scene in Act 1 packs a visual punch, though Zambello lays it on a little thick -- do we really need so many table-top, scantily clad go-go dancers, and a couple of sashaying queens to boot?

When attention shifts to what would be a monastery in a traditional production, we get a forbidding, graffiti-sprayed place of metal walls, giant shipping containers, piles of garbage.

That ambience would be a lot more convincing if the members of the religious sect inhabiting this space had a more contemporary appearance, too. Instead, they're outfitted in grand, swoopy robes, looking like caricatures of Vatican courtiers. (I would think something poorer and purer, or even a twist on Salvation Army uniforms, would be more plausible.)

And when all the "monks" gather for their big procession, complete with abundant dry-ice fog, it nearly turns into high camp. Not quite the effect Verdi expected, I imagine.

Still, Zambello's concept is so firmly applied and so vibrantly realized that the things that don't quite make sense have a way of fitting together. When it comes to the director's most daring move, I'm not so sure.

Instead of the well-known overture that Verdi wrote for the now standard 1869 version of "Forza," this production opens with Act 1 -- where the Marquis is accidentally killed, forcing Leonora and Alvaro to flee. (The fortissimo orchestral knocks that launch the overture are heard softly when this scene opens.)

After this "prologue" comes the overture, used here as a soundtrack for a lot of mimed business that depicts the escape (couldn't Leonora ditch her formal gown before climbing onto a window ledge?), and as an indicator of time passing.

I'm troubled by such major tampering with the score. But, in the context of Zambello's particular take on the opera, and in light of her respect for the music at every other turn, I can get over it. And I rather admire her chutzpah. (There is also reordering of scenes in Act 3, but not without precedent.)

The opening night performance benefited from the tight rapport and considerable vocal fire power of the cast, along with the passionate conducting of Xian Zhang.

Having a woman on the podium (the company has engaged others over the years, including Marin Alsop) seemed especially important right now, following recent news of idiotic remarks by some Russian conductors and the director of the Paris Conservatory about why there aren't more female conductors.

Zhang shaped the score with a keen sense of momentum -- the overture might have been in an odd place, but it sure did sizzle -- and an appreciation for the eloquence of Verdi's melodic lines. She breathed with the singers and had the fine orchestra doing the same.

Adina Aaron lit up the stage in her company debut as Leonora. The soprano's pitch drooped a bit early on, but that was a minor matter given all the warmth, dynamic nuance (some wonderful high pianissimos) and expressive ardor in her singing as the evening progressed. "Pace, pace, mio Dio" was delivered with great sensitivity.

Aaron proved to be a thoroughly persuasive, engaging actress as well. All in all, a compelling performance that suggested a good chance for a major career.

Also making his debut was Giancarlo Monsalve as Alvaro. The tenor revealed a burly timbre with baritonal heft, and, at his best, demonstrated an ability to sculpt phrases incisively. Mark Delavan, as Leonora's vengeful brother Carlo, hit some dry patches, but mostly filled the house with a vibrant, muscular sound.

As the not-so-humble Brother Melitone, Valeriano Lanchas sang sturdily and colorfully and was alert to every bit of humor in the role. Enrico Iori's slender bass did not fill out Father Guardiano's music fully, but the phrasing had great character.

Ketevan Kemoklidze, decked out like a sort of later-day Charo, sang brightly and had an effective romp as Preziosilla. Solomon Howard's rich bass commanded attention in the role of Alcade. The chorus made a firm, spirited sound and handled stage business with flair.

This "Forza" may not be destined for the history books, but it has a musical and visual spark that generates a stirring experience, not to mention a reminder of Verdi's genius on the occasion of his bicentennial.

Performances continue through Oct. 26.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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