WNO’s “Force of Destiny” lets down vocal standards, and Verdi

Before I talk about the Washington National Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “La forza del destino” (“The force of destiny”), which opened Saturday night, I ask you to think back to September, when the star soprano Deborah Voigt stepped down from the company’s season-opening “Tristan und Isolde.” After a conversation with WNO’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, there was a mutual sense that Voigt, although she could get through the role of Isolde, wasn’t singing it at the level WNO needed.

But if you’re going to send the message that your company has high vocal standards, you have to be consistent. Voigt may not be an ideal Isolde, especially at this point in her career. But I promise you she can sing Isolde at least as well as, or even much better than, Giancarlo Monsalve sang Alvaro, Mark Delavan sang Carlo, and Ketevan Kemoklidze sang Preziosilla in “La forza del destino” Saturday.

I might have actually preferred hearing Voigt sing Preziosilla. To be sure, the role is completely outside her voice type, but at least she could have hit the right notes.

I’m sure I’ll be hearing from audience members who were outraged by Zambello’s production. Let me say clearly, then, that I had no problem with the production. Yes, it’s updated to the present. Yes, the inn scene is set in a raunchy bar, complete with pole dancers, with Preziosilla as a kind of Madonna type (opera’s pop references tend to skew a couple of decades old). Of course this is deliberately provocative, but it’s also a way to give some dramatic muscle to crowd scenes that most directors are hard put to bring to life. In a later scene, the crowd taunted and abused prisoners of war who were led on wearing Abu-Ghraib-style black blindfolds, which was certainly a telling way to convey the chorus’s continued and perverse obsession with war in this opera (“Evviva la guerra!”). Profound it’s not, but it does no violence to Verdi’s concept, and as reinterpretations go, it’s pretty innocuous.

And there were some nice ideas. The monastery was in a run-down inner-city area, with an image of an angel succoring an anonymous saint painted among the graffiti on a corrugated metal gate (the sets are by Peter J. Davison). The gate lifted, in the final scene of the first act, to reveal stacks of shipping containers between which the monks lay across the floor, their voices rising softly from their white-robed forms, like the smoke from dry ice; and Adina Aaron, as Leonora, did some of her finest singing of the night.

The single thing that bothered me most about the production was the overture: both having the actors pantomime rudimentary action while it played and choosing to perform it after the first scene, rather than at the start of the evening. However, there are years of precedent for playing the overture in this position; the Metropolitan Opera, for one, often did it this way, from the 1950s on. Verdi himself tinkered restlessly with the dramatic flow and scene order of this ostensibly problematic opera, and producers have followed his lead virtually ever since. Usually I like to hear as much of the opera as possible, but the advantage of WNO’s having chosen to stage one of the shorter versions is that one didn’t have to sit through any more of it.

Because no production can hope to work very well if the singing is terrible. And when the singers from your young-artist program — Soloman Howard sounding fantastic as Alcade, and Deborah Nansteel making herself heard in the tiny part of Leonora’s maid, plus Valeriano Lanchas, an alumnus of the program, as a resonant Melitone — stand head and shoulders above most of the leads, it speaks well for that program, but your audience is in for a long evening.

Some blame goes to the conductor, Xian Zhang, in her WNO debut. She brought lots of fire and energy to her work (and the orchestra greeted her with stamping feet, a sign of approval), but the coordination between stage and pit was consistently off, and she proceeded through some of the opera’s more poignant moments with brisk efficiency rather than the kind of throbbing heart the music requires.

Zhang didn’t help Aaron, who responded to the matter-of-factness of the conducting with a kind of checklist approach to some of her arias (diminuendo here, climax here, hold this note: check). Aaron has a creditable voice, strong in the low notes, slightly smoky in the middle, with top notes that are jewel-like when she keeps them quiet. Another conductor might have helped her make more effect in her “Madre, pietosa vergine” scene; as soon as the Padre Guardiano, Enrico Iori, came on, singing with earnestness and a reasonable amount of heft, she stepped up her game.

But I’m not sure anything short of a sledgehammer could have stopped Delavan and Monsalve from shouting and blustering their way through the evening. Delavan blustered with the best intentions in the world, putting his heart into his work; Monsalve did so in the time-honored, hell-with-the-rest-of-’em, haul-off-and-aim-for-the-high-notes tradition of bad Italian tenors. The effect they made was equally underwhelming, especially when they combined in “Amici in vita e in morte,” which is supposed to be a duet, and is ostensibly comprised of notes that are set on a staff in a certain order, but on Saturday was simply a sustained blast of two unblending sounds, as if two vacuum cleaners were duking it out for supremacy.

Amber Wagner, Rafael Davila and Luca Salsi will take over the leads for two performances, on Oct. 18 and 22 (and Salsi sticks around for the final performance on the 26th). If you’re thinking of going to the show, you might want to wait and hear them. As for this cast: Somebody owes an apology to Deborah Voigt, or, even more, to us.

“The Force of Destiny” continues at WNO through Oct. 26.

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