Bristol Hippodrome

Welsh National Opera
La forza del destino

April 2018

War in black and white

Straight after the performance I tweeted: ‘WNO are the best - tonight at Bristol Hippodrome the performance of La forza del destino was war and peace in all its macabre, gruesome, surreal and sensational manifestations - thank you, review tomorrow’.
Now the morning after the night before and I am still reeling and revelling about the show – it was amazing.
The singing and imagery are on a loop in my head such was the impact of the fantastic stagecraft of the Welsh National Opera company.
What’s not to love – the blonde woman sits astride a phallic big gun, people as Punch and Judy puppets with a grotesque full-sized breastfed baby, bloodied marionettes hanging from a scaffold, the beggar’s opera sequence, Kenny Everett giant yellow foam hands once waved at Conservative conference where he chanted ‘let’s bomb Russia’ or Adam Ant inspired makeup mixed with sinister masks and headgear? 
It was dramatic theatre at its best accompanied by a live orchestra and stupendous singing.
Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams (Donna Leonora) has a voice like ‘a choir of angels’, with Gwyn Hughes Jones (Don Alvaro) and Luis Cansino (Don Carlo di Vargas) adding finesse with duets and solos amid shouts of ‘bravo’ from the stalls.
Gravel-sounding mezzo-soprano Justina Gringyté who plays Preziosilla in her many guises (and Curra, Leonora's maid) straddled the war machine which moved up and down, but her vocals didn’t falter.
The WNO is in its 50th anniversary of touring to Bristol Hippodrome from its Wales Millennium Centre base at Cardiff Bay.
Its spring season of operatic ‘rabble rousers’ includes Mozart’s Don Gionvanni, Puccini’s Tosca and this new production of Verdi’s La forza del destino with conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi.
I decided not to be greedy and do all three (like several others I meet in the stalls on Saturday night) so I gave the revivals a miss – I won’t be so stupid next time.
Before he saw the final show, theatre critic Gerry Parker compared watching the previous operas to seeing a match with English football manager Sam Allendyce in charge, effective if not flashy.
During the interval for La forza del destino he admitted his initial criticism was a bit harsh as this was by far the best of the trilogy and certainly very exciting. 
La forza del destino translates as The Force of Destiny and is all about fate and vengeance with the usual thwarted lovers who flaunt the norms of the time and run into family ‘issues’ including social status and parental approval.
Religion, politics and racism also play their part as surprisingly does humour.
Rallying the troops for a holy war and you get the Nazis at Nuremberg crossed with a surreal boy scout jamboree sporting Salvation Army-style uniforms - madness.
The tambourines were replaced with shiny dishes strapped to midriffs as an army marches on its stomach via a Bierkeller and brothel.
Belgian brew Stella Artois use the theme from its overture in advertising and the award-winning French film Jean de Florette about returning soldiers featured the music too.
What this opera does is throw at you every emotion that conflict brings and with US president Donald Trump bombing Syria that very day the irony wasn’t lost on the audience.
Justina as the military madwomen modeled on Eva Braun/Marlene Dietrich wears a sequined black jacket while singing ‘hurrah for war, war is beautiful’ but mostly she is in glamorous widow’s weeds sounding the death knell to the innocents.
Think Yoko Ono PEACE (white bedsheets Amsterdam hotel) and Leo Tolstoy WAR (dark and dangerous novels) and all the black and white symbolism with splashes of bright red blood and you have the opening sequence.
The projected backdrop plays roulette with spinning pistols and a wheel of fate as death hovers.
What stands out aside from the music is the symmetry of the pack stealing in and out of the folding scenery made up of three interlocking frames and moved by the men from Milk Tray advertisement.
Full marks for lighting, costumes and choreography.
At the monastery the ungodly medieval monks wear bishop’s mitres and blood splatted capes, presumably from their worship of flagellation.
The well-known overture sets the scene for this dramatic opera full of twists and turns that sees the heroine Leonora torn between her lover Don Alvaro and allegiance to her family.
If you have going to an opera on your bucket list may I suggest you don’t wait and do it next time WNO are in town as this experience is too good to miss.
Oh, did I mention the breeze gently blowing the balcony curtains, the hermit rubbing her nightshirt sleeve endlessly to remove the red stain as it drips fresh blood from the white wall and that very big bang that made everyone jump for Jesus?

WNO returns to the Bristol Hippodrome at the end of October 2018 with La Traviata and La Cenerentola with tickets on sale now.

Carol Deacon

PHOTOS: Richard Hubert Smith

WNO refines rabble rouser

PREVIEW: Welsh National Opera presents a feast of Italian operas from three of the greatest composers for its spring season in Bristol.  

The season, entitled Rabble Rousers, will feature a new production of Verdi’s La forza del destino alongside revivals of Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The spring season also marks the 50th anniversary of WNO touring to Bristol Hippodrome.  

WNO first tread the Hippodrome boards in March 1968 with a fortnight of operas which, rather fittingly, included Don Giovanni.  
WNO managing director Leonora Thomson said “The company has enjoyed an excellent relationship with the team at Bristol Hippodrome and with the Bristol audiences over the years.

"The fact that we have been touring there for 50 years speaks for itself and we look forward to continuing this special connection for many years to come.” 
To start the season in Bristol romance and tragedy are on the menu for WNO’s revival of its production of Tosca in this thrilling story of love, lust, murder and corruption which has become one of the best-loved operas.  

Featuring beautiful arias including Floria Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, the story is punctuated with twists and turns from start to its gripping finish.  

Conducting of Tosca in Bristol will be shared by Tête à Tête music director Timothy Burke and Carlo Rizzi.

The production will feature a double cast in the role of Mario Cavaradossi; Gwyn Hughes Jones and Hector Sandoval will share the tenor role, with Claire Rutter singing the soprano role of Floria Tosca.  

Mark S Doss will take the role of the villainous Scarpia, and the cast is completed by Daniel Grice (Cesare Angelotti) and Donald Maxwell (Sacristan).

Tosca is followed by the revival of John Caird’s 2011 staging of Don Giovanni, with design by John Napier.  

Based on the tale of Don Juan, Don Giovanni follows the demise of opera’s legendary seducer as his rogueish womanising catches up with him and he meets his end through a force from beyond the grave.  

One of the most popular and much-performed operas, this has everything from murder to lust to comedy, drama and the supernatural.  

Don Giovanni will be revived by Caroline Chaney, with James Southall conducting.

The company is delighted to welcome Irish tenor Gavan Ring who will make both his WNO debut and a role debut as Don Giovanni.  

Elizabeth Watts and David Stout will return following their performances in WNO’s Figaro trilogy in 2016 to sing Donna Elvira and Leporello respectively.

The cast is completed by Miklós Sebestyén (Commendatore), Emily Birsan (Donna Anna), Benjamin Hulett (Don Ottavio), Katie Bray (Zerlina) and Gareth Brynmor John (Masetto).

The main scale season concludes in Bristol with La forza del destino directed by WNO artistic director David Pountney and conducted by WNO conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi in a personal debut for the maestro this season.  

The well-known overture sets the scene for this dramatic opera full of twists and turns that sees the heroine Leonora torn between her lover Don Alvaro and allegiance to her family.

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones will sing the role of Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, and is joined by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora.#

Completing the cast are Miklós Sebestyén (Il Marchese Di Calatrava / Padre Guardiano), Luis Cansino (Don Carlo Di Vargas), Justina Gringyte (Preziosilla/Curra), Donald Maxwell (Fra Melitone), Alun Rhys-Jenkins (Mastro Trabuco) and Wyn Pencarreg (Alcade).

Designer Raimund Bauer, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour join with David Pountney to complete the production team, and have devised what they describe as a 'Verdi Machine' for the set.  

This device consists of three interlocking frames which can create different shapes.  

Carlo Rizzi said: “Forza is the only major Italian opera that I have not conducted but is one of the first ones that I heard in my life, so my thoughts on this masterpiece span more than 30 years.

"To bring my ideas together with David, a wonderful cast of singers and the great ensembles of WNO's chorus and orchestra make it all the more exciting for me that I am finally performing this masterpiece.

"I hope that audiences of all ages will join us for the beautiful and dramatic music that Verdi has written - not just the well known overture, but all the glorious arias and choruses in this opera that drive its very compelling story forward.” 

Talking about the season, David Pountney said: "As you might expect, a season of Rabble Rousers contains a lot of demonstrably noisy people – Preziosilla banging her drum for war, Don Giovanni leading a paean to La Liberta and Cavaradossi bursting into vocal flames at the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo.

"The three operas of our spring season bristle with rule breakers, revolutionaries and the enemies of convention – people of unbridled passion whose characters spring out so readily from the pages of an operatic score. 

“Our new production of the season, La forza del destino, straddles conflicting worlds very much in the manner of Tolstoy’s War And Peace - possibly not an accidental reference as it was written for St Petersburg.

"It begins with an attempted elopement and an accidental murder, and these events set in train a relentless quest for forgiveness and revenge respectively which crosses a violent and unstable world torn apart by war.

"It always surprises me when people complain that the plot of Forza is disjointed, untidy. Lives lived in the midst of war and terror are seldom tidy, predictable or even rational.

"This is a world of extremes explored with epic dramatic vision by Verdi, who is branching out at this point in his career into increasingly radical and original dramatic structures. It sets the tone for a season unashamedly dedicated to the wilder side of life.”  

Tickets from £14.90 - £51.90.

Click HERE to book or for further information.