Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”

December 18th, 2005

My wife and I attended new productions of “Forza del Destino” in Zurich on October 19 and San Francisco on November 20, 2005. In both cases we sat in first row seats, directly behind a masterful Italian conductor, veteran Nello Santi in Zurich and novitiate Nicola Luisotti in San Francisco, each of whom has received glowing praise by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

That orchestra can be very demonstrative when they appreciate a conductor and feel that they have been led in a masterful performance. At the performance’s end (and sometimes at the end of an act), each instrumentalist who so desires expresses approbation using their instruments in a characteristic manner, such as the strings gesturing with their bows.

The entire orchestra can also politely sit as still as stones when a conductor has not been to their fancy. Rarely has their expressed enthusiasm appeared to be more nearly unanimous than with Santi (who has not performed in San Francisco for a few years) and Luisotti.

[Below: Conductor Nello Santi; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


Both performances were sung well by their respective casts. On balance, the Zurich production had the better known cast, since it contained the Padre Guardiano of Matti Salminen (whose performance six weeks later as Gurnemanz in the Los Angeles “Parsifal” mounted for Placido Domingo [see Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005] and the Don Carlo di Vargas of Leo Nucci.

Nucci had been well-received in San Francisco in 1983 as Germont in “La Traviata”, in 1985 as Michonnet in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” and in 1987 as Figaro in “Barber of Seville”. In 1984, Salminen had been the Prince Khovansky the first time I saw Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”. Also in the Zurich cast were Joanna Kozlowska as Leonora, Vincenzo La Scola as Don Alvaro, Rosanna Rinaldi as Preziosilla and Paolo Rumetz as Fra Melitone.

It is rare that a Don Carlo steals the show from the Leonora and Alvaro, but Nucci did just that, with a bravura performance of Son Pereda, son rico d’onore in the Hornachuelos Inn scene. At the end of his aria, he not only stepped out of character to accept the vigorous Zurich applause, but he gestured (and had his gesture reciprocated) his appreciation for Santi’s conducting. Whatever is happening in the rest of the world, the traditions of Italian opera appear secure in Santi’s Zurich.

There does seem to be an occasional attempt by the Zurich management to change some things. This “Forza” was split into two parts, the first ending at the induction of Leonora into the monastery. The resulting second part is therefore much longer than the first, perhaps twice as long. Obviously, Santi wanted two intermissions instead of one.

But he compromised with management. At the point at which he would have placed the second intermission, he set his baton down and left for about 15 minutes, leaving the orchestra and audience in the darkened theatre. No one got an intermission except him. Then he returned, smiled, picked up the baton and continued on with his third act, or the second part of management’s second act.

The new production by Ezio Frigerio was directed by Nicolas Joel, familiar to San Francisco Opera audiences as first a collaborator with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, then as a stage director in his own right (see the DVD of San Francisco’s 1980 “Samson et Dalila” with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett).

[Below: Conductor Nicola Luisotti; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


The production had mostly traditional elements, associated with a time and place (18th century Spain and Italy) specified by Verdi and his librettist, with appropriate period costumes by Franca Squarciapino. The principal anachronism was a metallic cage that represented Leonora’s cell.

Even though the Zurich stage is smaller than San Francisco’s, I think Zurich’s production would have been much better received in San Francisco than the last of the Euro-trickster productions (this one by Roland Aeschlimann) to be personally supervised by the departing General Manager Pamela Rosenberg.

I suspect that in San Francisco everyone’s most vivid memory of this production will be the Hornachuelos scene. The curtain opened on a very long table, diagonally positioned and a group of persons at the inn in dark clothes, seeming to represent the appropriate time and place sitting around the table. Ah hah, I thought, they are going to play the scene straight to keep us off our guard.

No way! Who should appear than the pilgrims? (They, indeed, are called for by the libretto.) These, however, are not your typical pilgrims doing homage to St James, but rows and rows of crimson-hooded Inquisitor types, carrying Luke Skywalker-type light sabers, who arrive from downstage left, walk on top of the long table and leave upstage right.

Among the hooded guys are another group of pilgrims who are performing an over-the-top passion ritual, carrying crosses and flagellating themselves, exactly like we saw in Ponnelle’s 1976 San Francisco Opera production of “Cavalleria Rusticana”. But “Cav”, according to its libretto, does take place during a Sicilian Eastertide. Ponnelle’s concept can be reconciled and even defended there, but the idea need not be stolen and transported to the Hornachuelos inn.

[Below Left: Jill Grove as Preziosilla with camp followers.  Below Right: The final trio, from top to bottom, Orlin Anastassov (Guardiano), Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) and Andrea Gruber (Leonora). Edited images, based on Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Just when I thought the core idea of the production was some kind of muddled indictment of the excesses of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, in dances Preziosilla with a shocking reddish pink fright wig and patent leather raincoat, and sporting a bawdy, breasty bodice (in the words of my wife, a costume designed to offend all of the women in the audience).

This punk-rock time traveler incongruously falls to her knees, crosses herself, folds her hands in prayer, and joins the assembled 17th century citizens of the Spanish town in a hymn.

You will recall that Forza has an Italian war scene, and, of course, all of the soldiers had to be dressed in 21st century desert camouflage with gas masks, I suppose with the purpose of reminding us that Italy is one of those countries that begins with the letter “I”.

The cast was far better than the production. The major new voice was that of Vladimir Kuzmenko, the Don Alvaro, a true dramatic tenor with the vocal capacity that matches the War Memorial Opera House’s size. Andrea Gruber was a creditable Leonora, and Zeljko Lucic and Orlin Anastassov were interesting as Don Carlo and Guardiano.

Jill Grove, the Preziosilla, likely feels it is too early in her career path to permit herself to withdraw from a new production in an important house, rather than appear in a demeaning costume. Yet she showed she would be a vocally excellent Preziosilla in a friendlier production.

For the record, the costume designer, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, admits to having designed the costumes for two other offbeat productions – the San Francisco Opera’s “Parsifal” of 2000 and “Fliegende Hollander” of 2004. California needs a “three strikes you are out” law that applies to costume design.

[Below: Fra Melitone (Lucas Meachem) tosses the remaining purple glitter in his stew-pot onto the ground; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera. ]

Lucas Meachem (whose star appears to be rising) played Fra Melitone entirely differently than tradition dictates. Renato Capecchi exemplified that tradition – a misanthropic Melitone with a short fuse. Meachem played him as he might a college fraternity president, whose chapter has some important role in an upcoming homecoming, whose college authorities are annoying him with bureaucratic expectations, and whose frat-boy workers fail to take his lectures on their obligations seriously, but this frat prez will never, at any cost, allow himself to seem uncool.

On balance, Aeschlimann is far kinder to the monks than to the other personae in the drama. His preposterous presentation of the pilgrims suggests that any restraint towards monks is not because of any sensibility to their station or their glorious music, but because the ceremony where the awakened monks assemble to induct Leonora into the monastery is just a lot of fun – with the monks on the march – to stage.

(I also have considered his playing the scene straight was simply the default position; whatever Aeschlimann may have intended originally – say, the arrival of Martians – proving to be too complex with so many choristers having to be moved around the stage.)

Since I was sitting in front row Orchestra, I was able to note a stage direction probably not visible in the back rows. There is a backstory in “Forza”, referred to only obliquely, that involves Father Cleto, the person whom we are told has sent Leonora to Padre Guardiano’s monastery. We learn from the libretto that there has been another woman sheltered by that monastery, who also had been disguised as a hermit.

[Below: Leonora (Andrea Gruber) in her hermitage at the crossbeam. Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

After Guardiano consents to allow Leonora in by the same means, she falls in supplication to him. When she is near him, he closes his eyes, tightly grabs the staff he has been holding and trembles. Is this the exemplification of a Guardiano weakness for women, with his efforts to keep himself in control physically visible? This is an interesting implication, and adds a bit of fascination to the hints that there is more to the Leonora-Cleto-Guardiano-Other Hermit Woman interrelationships than has been revealed to us.

Trashing Verdi: Carl Jung Made us Do It

But no need to worry about Guardiano and any issues he might have. This is San Francisco Opera doing Verdi in the Pamela Rosenberg era.

In the 2002-03 season, we were treated to Recorded Time’s worst production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, designed by John Conklin and staged by Brad Dalton, who inferred that if a libretto appears to be incongruous (which means they have agreed to the assignment of doing a production of a story they do not like), that the writings of Carl Jung suggest that the interconnectedness of all human experience transcends any individual story line, which means the production designer and stage director can ignore every part of the story and do whatever they wish.

In the 2005-06 season, we were treated to Recorded Time’s worst production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, whose production designer (Aeschlimann) explained that if a libretto appears to be incongruous (which means that he has agreed to the assignment of doing a production of a story he does not like), that the writings of Carl Jung suggest that the interconnectedness of all human experience transcends any story line, which means the production designer and stage director can ignore every part of the story and do whatever they wish.

Pamela Rosenberg describes this as “Animating Opera”.

So, let’s create the final scene for “Forza”. Remember the grade school game “jacks” where girls and others would throw down these metal objects and pick them up while bouncing a ball? Why not have a giant stylized jack, shorn of a couple of its spikes, be Leonora’s hermitage? This would allow her to ascend or descend to or from the highest spike of the jack depending on the circumstances – singing her anthem “Pace pace mio dio” or getting stabbed offstage by Don Carlo or showing up for the final trio with Don Alvaro and Guardiano.

[Below: Participants in the final trio of “Forza del Destino are Leonora (Andrea Gruber), Don Alvaro (Vladimir Kuzmenko) and Padre Guardiano (Orlin Anasstasov);edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

(Earlier in the Act, Melitone has tossed the contents, represented by confetti, of the soup-pot from which he was feeding the hungry crowd, onto the ground. Leonora in the final scene falls prostrate on the glittering confetti, which we recall symbolizes food waste, so that it becomes encrusted onto her habit.)

I suspect that the “Forza” production designer would be very smug in his expectations that a resurrected Jung would be delighted with a production that focuses on the interconnected concepts of hooded pilgrims, desert-camouflaged soldiers in gas masks, a sexually-obsessed celibate, and a cross-dressing Spanish lady who lives alone in earth’s most avant-garde domicile? What force! What destiny!

There may be some hope. The “Trovatore” production appears still to be owned by the Seattle Opera, so our interconnectedness with that chaotic experience presumably ceased two and a half years ago. As far as “Forza” goes, it is a bit wasteful to scrap a production after only one season, but San Francisco has done it before, and perhaps it can be sold to a European house.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews