Review: Verdi's 'La forza del destino' by Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Verdi’s ‘La forza del destino’ by Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

TV editor Matt Dawson reviews the Welsh National Opera's stunning production of Verdi's 'La forza del destino'.

As I took my seat in the main auditorium of the Birmingham Hippodrome for Verdi’s La forza del destino, it was clear that I was amongst the youngest in the audience. This is hardly surprising, as opera isn’t generally a student’s first choice for a night out, but having had a stunning first-time experience, it really is a shame that more young people don’t go.

At first, the idea of sitting through three hours of singing in Italian may sound a little daunting, but with the help of surtitles, the Welsh National Opera’s production was a spectacle. The epic plot, that spans years, wars and nations, centres on a pair of star-crossed lovers Leonora (Mary Elizabeth Williams) and Don Alvaro (Gwyn Hughes Jones) who are preparing to elope against the wishes of her disapproving father, when tragedy strikes. Alvaro’s gun goes off, accidentally killing Leonora’s father and causing her brother, Don Carlo di Vargas (Luis Cansino) to swear an oath of vengeance, setting in motion a series of tragic events all to the backdrop of an intricate yet epic operatic score.

'The Welsh National Opera’s production was a spectacle..'

Raimund Bauer’s astonishingly dynamic set design is something to behold, making use of a multipurpose wall structure, acting as a variety of locales from a church to a warzone, shifting to the constantly dripping bloodstain from the opening fatal incident as a reminder of the protagonists’ guilt. The simple yet evocative lighting design makes use of strategic projection, which compliments the piece rather than detracting from it as it so easily could have done. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costume design is breath-taking, in particular the soldiers’ uniforms which are reminiscent of 20th Century dictatorships. This is especially pertinent when we consider where the action takes place; Italy and Spain both bore witness to the rise of fascism under Mussolini and Franco respectively. The entire piece is held together by Carlo Rizzi’s supreme conducting, masterfully manipulating the orchestra just out of sight beneath the stage.

The three central characters share an interesting dynamic. Cansino conveyed the stubbornness of di Vargas incredibly well, and through the way he presented himself onstage, the character’s determination to maintain his family loyalty was clear. His pursuit of Alvaro at times felt like a Mafia-esque vendetta, as he was committed to avenge his father. In contrast, Jones made Alvaro’s inner conflict the forefront of his performance, but also shed some light on an interesting racial element thanks to his colonial Peruvian heritage. Vocally, all the cast can hold their own, but it is La forza del destino’s prima donna, Mary Elizabeth Williams, who shines through the most. In spite of a story that dragged at times, especially towards the end of the second act, Williams sang beautifully, conveying Leonora’s complex emotions. 

'Gringytė...steals the show, every other scene she’s in with her electric body language and seductively captivating stage presence...'

It doesn’t take someone to be fluent in Italian to guess from the opera’s title that Destiny has some element to play in the turning of events. Destiny is capitalised here because it is embodied by Justina Gringytė, who plays the otherwise minor roles of Preziosilla and Curra, but interpreted by director David Poutney as the corporeal form of Fate. Gringytė is the first person on stage introducing the overture with a three note leitmotif that recurs frequently as to remind the audience of Destiny’s intervention. Subsequently, she steals the show, every other scene she’s in with her electric body language and seductively captivating stage presence, whether that be as an “invisible” element pulling the strings, or her joyously interacting with others as a fortune teller. Praise once again needs to be drawn to the costumes, as the variety of outfits that Preziosilla wears are easily the most memorable aspect of the production.

As first operas go, this production of La forza del destino was definitely a welcome surprise. In spite of an initial language barrier and some parts that felt more tedious than others, the WNO put on a show to remember.

More information on La forza del destino and all WNO productions can be found here.

Final year Modern Languages student, TV Editor, using student journalism as a post-Erasmus coping mechanism. (@mdawson_96)


8th March 2018 at 4:23 pm

Images from

Richard Hubert Smith and Welsh National Opera