The week in classical: La forza del destino; Berenice – review

Royal Opera House; Linbury theatre, London
Netrebko and Kaufmann turn tricky Verdi into box-office gold. Plus, a memorable outing for Handel’s Berenice

For a few hours the UK was the envy of the world. Incredible but true, at least for the musically interested. The combined forces of a fated opera, two superstars and pairs of tickets changing hands illegally for the price of a small car would stir excitement in any circumstance. Verdi’s La forza del destino is in itself an event: complex, bumpy, long; an exploration of war, prejudice and religion streaked with bizarre comedy, laced with superstition, glistering with orchestral brilliance and vocal challenge.

Recalled through the theatrics of the past week, that first night of the Royal Opera’s new Forza takes on the air of a febrile mirage, with opera’s most prized pair – the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – rising from the haze like surreal visions. Both showed up and sang in peak, corporeal form, Netrebko her first Leonora, Kaufmann as her lover Don Alvaro, a role he sang in Munich seven years ago.

These sorts of rare unions – the two last sang together at the Royal Opera House in 2008 – depend significantly on the persuasive powers of the ROH’s music director, Antonio Pappano, who handles singers, novices or established elite alike, with celebrated horse-whisperer skill. He also has Verdi in his soul, keeping tight reins on pacing and structure. I doubt he wanted to allow all those disruptive pauses between big arias, but there was no escape: this audience whooped and cheered every aria long before the last notes sounded.

Anna Netrebko (Donna Leonora) in La forza del destino.
‘Mesmerising’: Anna Netrebko as Leonora in La forza del destino. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

For Netrebko, dramatic integrity, a mesmerising aural imagination and, now, a new, pliant, rich lower register, are of the essence, sometimes at the expense of pinpoint accuracy. She holds the stage every second she’s on it. Alas, the role means she’s often off it, especially after Alvaro kills her father by mistake, a whoops moment with terrible consequences. Kaufmann, with reason often called “baritonal”, has a tenebrous quality, coping easily with high notes but in full bloom lower in the voice. He has a nice line in self-flagellation, punching himself, the air, the floor, in despair. Leonora and Alvaro are wretched people.

Meriting the same top billing as Kaufmann and Netrebko, the French baritone Ludovic Tézier brought extraordinary, sour magnificence to the role of Leonora’s vengeful brother. The rest of this cast (there’s a second cast, also strong) was full of glories. Two seasoned Italians – the bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as the creepily glossy Padre Guardiano and baritone Alessandro Corbelli as his comical sidekick, Fra Melitone – added lustre, as did the British bass Robert Lloyd and the youthful Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, one late in his career, the other a Jette Parker Young Artist.

Written at the height of Verdi’s career, between Don Carlo and Aida, La forza requires a chorus that, if the work is performed without the crude cuts too often imposed, pulls hard with its own picaresque tale of social hardship and battle weariness. The scenes with the Gypsy Preziosilla (Veronica Simeoni), here unaccountably a belly dancer, sit uneasily but are key to the work’s scope and balance. The ROH forces shone, as did the orchestra, complete with the lugubrious, low belch of the cimbasso.

Christof Loy’s unexciting production, premiered at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, in 2017, neither helped nor hindered their performance. It looked effective (designer Christian Schmidt), moving fluidly through time and place, but the action was prone to cliche: a multipurpose room and table; random video projections; three cringing dumbshows in the overture. First glimpse of that statue of the Virgin Mary and you knew Leonora would end up as a Madonna. Sure enough, Netrebko, draped in blue, hair tumbling, looked the part but it was mawkish. These are details. This was centre court opera at its fiery best. See it in cinemas on 2 April (encore 7 April).

Downstairs in the ROH Linbury theatre, in a new co-production with the London Handel festival, a superb cast and orchestra performed Berenice, not Handel’s best, but an opera that offers scope for high drama and (onstage) diva rivalry. Premiered at Covent Garden theatre, forerunner to the Royal Opera House, in 1737, this was its first return to Covent Garden. Laurence Cummings, unrivalled in this repertoire, conducted. The director Adele Thomas, aided by Selma Dimitrijevic’s English adaptation, gave the complicated plot patterned clarity and wit – some feat. Claire Booth exuded wonderful viperish hauteur in the title role, with Rachael Lloyd meeting like with like as her capricious sister Selene. James Laing (Demetrio), Alessandro Fisher (Fabio) and William Berger (Aristobolo) completed the well-matched ensemble.

Claire Booth in the title role with Rachael Lloyd as Selene in Berenice at the Linbury theatre.
Claire Booth in the title role with Rachael Lloyd as Selene in Berenice at the Linbury theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Two Jette Parker Young Artists – Patrick Terry, bendy and diverting as Arsace, and Jacquelyn Stucker as an intense and compassionate Alessandro – made memorable impressions. Hannah Clark’s inventive design – fabulous, faintly crazed wigs and costumes, the action taking place around a semi-circular green bench – made much of little. In this five-way tangle of desire, political expediency and what are now called least worst available options, nobility wins the day. Historically that outcome quickly turned to disaster. Handel, as ever, gave us plenty to think about.

Star ratings (out of five)
La forza del destino ★★★★
Berenice ★★★★

• Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann sing together again in La forza del destino on 2 and 5 April. With cast changes, performances continue at the Royal Opera House, London, until 22 April
Berenice is at the Linbury theatre, Royal Opera House, London, until 7 April


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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