The ways of opera houses are inscrutable. When the Washington National Opera opened its production of “La forza del destino” the other week, I tried to think of reasons they might have engaged such poor singers. It’s almost impossible to find good Verdi singers these days, so they probably – I reasoned – simply couldn’t find anybody better.
Then I went for a performance by the second cast, on Tuesday – and heard some of the best Verdi singing I’ve heard live in years.
Why didn’t we hear these artists on opening night?
The singers weren’t all new to me, but I never heard them sound like this. I had heard the tenor Rafael Davila as Pollione in WNO’s “Norma” this past March, so I knew he would be on the light side, vocally speaking, for the role of Alvaro; but I had no idea he could sing with such warmth, vigor, and often beauty. As for Luca Salsi, he sang the role of Carlo with authority and considerable power, blowing away any memory of a time I had trouble hearing his lower register in “Un ballo in maschera” here in 2010.
Above: Amber Wagner as the Marschallin in the Rosenkavalier trio in a 2012 concert performance; as she showed in WNO’s “Forza del Destino,” this is a singer to watch.
I first heard Amber Wagner when she was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007. It was clearly a failure of imagination on my part not to understand the potential of what I heard only as a decent, large voice. That voice has blossomed into a promising Verdi soprano. All it lacks is a bit more bloom and fullness on the top; a couple of her climaxes were on the thin side, with a touch of stridency. But the ease, the rich low register, even some of the limpid quality that has marked the best Verdians were all in evidence on Tuesday.
The rest of the cast was unchanged from the premiere, including Peter Volpe singing perfectly well as the doomed Marquis of Calatrava, who is killed in the opera’s first scene, and Valeriano Lanchas better than ever as the comic friar Melitone. Hearing good singing only enhanced Francesca Zambello’s production of an opera that, although the program notes and some of the other reviews described it as neglected or misunderstood, remains for most opera-lovers a cornerstone of the Verdi repertoire. I was accurate in saying that a lot of people wouldn’t like this production, but on a second viewing I still thought it worked just fine. “Forza” is an about war, and crowd psychology, and the human comedy, and strident contemporary references help bring across some of the points, and more importantly some of the feelings, that I think Verdi was trying to evoke.
The only shift was in the quality of Xian Zhang’s conducting, which had declined from not-great to pretty awful. She conducted faster and more heedlessly, muddying details of the score and leaving the singers scrambling to catch up, with no evident sense of Verdi’s line or the emotional content of what was happening on stage above her. I could speculate that she had grown more comfortable with the score and therefore less careful -- but that would be speculation.
I can also only speculate about why WNO made the casting choices it did. I can’t even say for sure who was responsible, since opera works on such a slow time line that most of the singers were probably booked years ago, even before WNO merged with the Kennedy Center. I could hazard a guess that visuals played a role, since the opening-night soprano and tenor were thin, while both Wagner and Davila are more solidly built. I could wonder if some of them were not available for certain performances, and wonder whether Zambello’s team made any changes to the original cast, or tried to. But I have no answers. I only know that WNO actually assembled a real group of Verdians, and only had them sing two performances of this wonderful opera, and I’m glad I got to hear one of them.