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Life is Hell...

And People Aren't Much Better In Verdi's Romance And Revenge Opera

DEATH BECOMES HER: Antonello Palombi (left) cradles Giovanna Casolla as Daniel Lewis Williams looks on, considers genuflecting.

By John Barry | Posted 10/10/2007

La Forza del Destino

By Giuseppe Verdi

Through Oct. 14 at the Lyric Opera House

"La Vita`E Inferno!" shouts Don Alvaro (Antonello Palombi) at the opening of act two in one of La Forza del Destino's trademark arias. For those less conversant in Italian, that means, basically, that life is hell. In this opera life truly is hell, in all forms and colors. It's an improbable and unfortunate series of disasters, in which the loser winds up being the last man standing. In Verdi's unwieldy, grandiose opera, given the alternatives, dying doesn't look like such a bad thing after all.

Watching the Baltimore Opera Company's lively, colorful, and slightly trimmed version of this classic, though, has its definite rewards. Most notably, the production features two excellent principals, Italian tenor Palombi and soprano Giovanna Casolla. They're ably backed up by conductor Christian Badea and a spectacular set design, courtesy of stage director Paolo Micciché. Finally, despite the downward spiral of the plot line, Verdi has managed to squeeze in a number of memorable comic roles. So don't worry: The characters themselves aren't having a great time, but its fun to watch.

But first, thanks to Francesco Maria Piave's libretto, a little suspension of disbelief is required. The story opens as an Incan prince, Don Alvaro, comes to elope with Leonora (Casolla), the daughter of a Spanish Marchese (Alexander Savtchenko). It's the early 19th century, and the Marchese is damned if his daughter is going to go out with an Incan. To make matters worse for Alvaro, Leonora is getting cold feet, and the Marchese intrudes on them. For some reason, Alvaro decides to shoot himself, but drops the gun, which fires accidentally, hitting the Marchese. While dying, the Marchese curses the young couple. (If you're mad at somebody shout "Maledicione!" a few times. It works.)

Then things really start going downhill for Alvaro and Leonora. The two would-be lovers head off into different directions, pursued by Leonora's brother Don Carlo (Ned Barth). Don Carlo never liked Alvaro to begin with, but now, assuming (incorrectly) that Alvaro has killed his father, he's relentless in his quest for revenge. The three head into the thick of a war between Italy, Spain, and Germany. Leonora hides in a cave, Alvaro changes his name and becomes a soldier, and Don Carlo also lurks under an assumed name. But as the story stretches across Europe over five years, the hapless trio can't stop from running into one another.

Despite all of her misfortunes, the evening belongs to Leonora. Casolla brings down the house with fluid performances of two of Verdi's most memorable arias ("Madre, pietosa Vergine" and "Pace, pace, mio Dio"). The first aria takes place in the second half of Act II, in combination with a backing chorus of monks and Padre Guardiano (Daniel Lewis Williams). This is one of the opera's most resonating moments, an oasis of spirituality in what has been until now a train wreck of misfortune. As Don Alvaro, meanwhile, tenor Palombi doesn't disappoint. His acting skills are indifferent, but his voice, especially in its slow upward climbs to emotional peaks, is overwhelming. That electricity gets lost in his duets, however, with Don Carlos. Baritone Barth maintains a solid presence, and is convincing as the dark, obsessed Carlos, but he and Palombi don't always appear to be on the stage together. If anything, that's the production's biggest weakness. Much of La Forza's dramatic tension is drawn out of the relationship between these two sworn enemies, and neither their accidental friendship nor their mutual hatred really comes to the fore in their duets or interactions.

La Forza was considered revolutionary in its time because of its use of crowd scenes, which gave soldiers of fortune, tavernflies, and muleteers a significant chunk of stage time. As Preziosilla, the Gypsy fortune teller, mezzo-soprano Jessie Raven is one of the production's gems. It's her job to convince this band of unwilling louts to put down their tankards and take up their blunderbusses in foreign wars. Raven's energized performance adds comic--and vocal--sparkle to what is otherwise a pretty desolate first half hour.

In the end, this production is notable for its comic interludes and searing arias, and less so for any sort of dramatic tension. Given the nature of the plot, that's probably exactly what most people come for. They may have also come to see Micciché's marvelous set designs, which use projections and scrims to melt images into one another as the opera progresses. In addition to spectacular visuals, it also leaves the stage clear for the actors. The audience pays a price for that though: many of the characters get obscured behind the scrims, which are not completely transparent. While Micciché lifts sections of the screen to focus on major characters, at points the set leaves many of the smaller characters removed from the audience or partially obscured. In an opera as democratic as La Forza--with its emphasis on choruses and a profusion of memorable smaller characters--that's a bit of a drawback.

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