As conductor Xian Zhang mounted the podium Saturday evening for the Washington National Opera’s opening night of “The Force of Destiny,” the audience seemed to lean in, eagerly anticipating the driving overture that is the work’s most recognizable calling card. Yet, only silence remained. The curtain rose on a dumb-show dinner scene in a luxurious home, where a family broke bread and a maid stood anxiously by the large window, looking out into the blackest of nights.
Like the unsuspecting characters of Giuseppe Verdi’s sweeping work “La Forza del Destino” (WNO oddly translates the title into English), the audience would have to wait for destiny to come to us on its own terms. Director Francesca Zambello’s creative opening gave the story an unexpected immediacy, especially as the tragic events surrounding the heroine Leonora (Adina Aaron) and her lover Don Alvaro (Giancarlo Monsalve) unfolded in the first scene. Once the die was cast, however, the overture blared from the pit as an interlude between the life the protagonists dreamed of and the tumultuously bloody years ahead.
Zambello, a lesbian, moved the drama from the mid-1800s to the present day, complete with signs advertising sex, pole dancers displaying their wares outside a club and costumes evoking a city’s downtrodden, but this change of scene isn’t done thoughtlessly to bring in new opera fans. It actually works — beautifully at times.
Leonora, costumed as a vagrant, flees her broken family home and the wrath of a brother hell-bent on killing her, and lands outside an urban monastery, with graffiti scrawled on its walls and a neon cross over the door. Yet, as she drops to her knees and begs God to rescue her from this miserable life, the plight of the modern-day heroine seems less antiquated and more real, reminding us of our own dark nights of the soul when we’ve turn to a God we may or may not believe in to see us through ‘til dawn.
The vision doesn’t always work seamlessly — penitent monks wandering through a raucous, sex-crazed street crowd seems more fitting for an earlier era — but the production takes what can be a tottering opera and restores it to a seat reserved for Verdi’s best musical and dramatic writing.
‘Forza’ is not an easy work to cast, given the intense demands for protagonists and chorus alike, but under Zhang’s evocative baton, the artists delivered crackling, if not always subtle, performances.
Aaron was an electrifying presence, her body trembling with pathos, almost as if she was unable to control the power coursing through her. Her final act aria, the famed “Pace, Pace, mio Dio,” was simply perfect in both vocal and dramatic delivery. It may have been opening night nerves, but elsewhere in the opera, she sometimes sped through passages that required focused negotiation between a marvelously dark chest voice and her more velvety middle register, and a couple of notes sounded a hair off-pitch. Hopefully, these kinks will iron themselves out, because her overall performance is spectacular.
The lower-voiced roles took home the prize among the men. Mark Delavan’s Carlo never seemed to flag over the course of a long evening, his rich tone creamy from bottom to top. Italian bass Enrico Iori was a sumptuously formidable, yet also delicately heartbreaking, Father Guardino, and the rousing chemistry between him and Aaron makes one wonder what the two could make of “Don Carlo.”
The dark tenor hero Don Alvaro is a complex role. His music often sits in places tenors would rather muscle through in order to sail onwards to their glorious high notes, and the character’s emotional journey is deliciously multifaceted. Monsalve delivered acting in spades, giving us a sexy and then tormented Alvaro, but his singing was uneven. He seemed capable of only two dynamic choices — shout and bellow — and while, when appropriate, those choices were lovely, they made for a loud night.
By the opera’s end, though, when death had claimed so many and forgiveness seemed like the frailest of hopes, it was Zambello who walked away with the crown for a production that not only made us listen, but also made us think.