On Saturday with D to the first night of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, which was also the opening night of Opera Australia’s Sydney winter season.

I can’t say I am really keen on first nights. It’s all that black-tie stuff and prominent persons (as likely as not on the free list) being seen. I’m never entirely convinced of the sincerity of the applause.

See here for a convenient list of previous productions.

It is 16 years since I last saw it. My copy of Kobbe’s opera guide bears Joan Carden’s autograph from an encounter with her in 1986 at the then Opera Brasserie on Bridge Street after a performance conducted by Stuart Challender. I remember that occasion well, even if my recollection of the performance may be mediocre at best. In between there was a revival in about 1992.

It is often said that the libretto is particularly clunky, and the opera might almost as readily be called the force of coincidence as of destiny. Even the first night crowd could scarce forbear to laugh at one particularly timely twist, when the surgeon declared that the penitent lover (tenor) (who had accidentally killed his lover’s father), wounded on the battlefield, would nevertheless live – just after the vengeful brother (baritone) had discovered the lover’s identity (having scrupled to read his letters) because of a locket of the sister (soprano, obviously) amongst his effects.

The production is cast at Opera Australia’s upper end – that is, three visitors, one returning Australian (Jonathan Summers – lugubrious as ever – it’s something about his mouth rather than just the baritonal mode), supported by some of their stronger local singers in the middling parts. It’s an Opera Conference production, made to be shared by different companies and therefore used in different venues. Perhaps not coincidentally, the set is more a matter of properties wheeled on to the stage – some quite large – rather than a built set.

I enjoyed it. I could go again, but one thing (apart from frugality) might stop me.

The director has decided to make “destiny” visual. Mostly this is done by the use of skull-masked chorus members who seem to embody evil spirits referred to by the ill-fated sister, Leonora (obviously a common Spanish name, at least in operas) relatively early in the piece. Rather heavy-handedly, they even sweep onto the stage before the vengeful brother in the final scene and the man of God crosses himself in apprehension as they pass.

That much I could handle, but then (well, not then – it started from the beginning of the Overture) the director decided to make Preziosilla, the gypsy fortune teller and singer of cheerfully militaristic numbers (which in any case are capable of being interpreted as a kind of dramatic irony) to be the [un]Deus-ex-machina of the piece who personifies destiny as a plot-propelling device. What this actually means is that almost every solitary aria is upstaged by her emoting in various ways in the background or miming puppet-masterish gestures, she has a wild laugh or two at the poor characters’ expense and then, quite incongruously, when it comes to her song to war (Rataplan!) she has a sudden uncharacteristic access of grief or compassion.

This was irritating.

Please, lose the ubiquitous Preziosilla, and sing “Rataplan!” deadpan! It can be much grimmer that way – as well as more faithful to its musical conception.

I expect it is too late to hope for changes on this run, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least the first which I urge occurred before the next Opera Conference outing, unless counter-suggestibility applies. Don’t tell me people didn’t wonder about it even in the rehearsals – though you could say that at this point the right thing to do is to let the artist (in this case the director) put his concept before the public.

Mr Licata conducted. There were numerous orchestral felicities, including flute, oboe and clarinet solos (the violin solo was played by two) and a rare sighting of the cimbasso (Conversely, a rising arpeggio figure accompanying Leonora’s first aria went astray at the same point each time it recurred. I’m sure it’s tricky but I hope the player in question doesn’t think what he is doing at present is good enough.) There were some terrific costumes and though for me the candle-lit scene was disappointing (the current production of Il Trovatore does candles better in a similar context) there was a particularly arresting tableau at the end, which was both shocking and eloquent.

Despite the drawn-out and improbable plot, when the two men sang that sad little destiny tune to each other at the end which we had first heard in the overture the drama all came together. D told me he was moved to tears.

2 Responses to “Rataplan!”

  1. wanderer Says:

    This is getting good press and I’m sorely tempted, not having seen it since a rehearsal when Lisa Gasteen covered for Joan Carden, whenever that was, but funds are pretty compromised.

    That AusStage resource is a good find, thanks.

    Mark Thomson speaks to the Presiozilla business here.

    Got back on the weekend.

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