La Forza del Destino, Royal Opera House, London

Vulgar histrionics but no drama
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The Independent Culture

So was he missed? Riccardo Muti, that is. The thunderous ovation that greeted Antonio Pappano's arrival in the Covent Garden pit on opening night was the only reply that mattered. Then came Verdi's overture. The force of destiny was set in motion with an urgency and febrile intensity that reflected the high emotions in the house over recent weeks. The orchestra was on fire. And the ovation at the close was yet more thunderous. Riccardo who?

But then the curtain rose and the biggest irony of all came into play. Muti was said to have cancelled his long-awaited return to the Royal Opera over minor technical alterations to the design of this La Scala-originated production. Though those who saw it in Milan detected no appreciable changes, La Scala is very particular about protecting every aspect of its productions. The director/designer withdrew his name. Wise move, I say. If this is what still passes for theatre in Milan then I, too, wouldn't want the world to know about it.

So the director/designer of this lumbering prehistoric beast of a staging shall remain nameless. But we know who he is. And we've seen these productions - often in volumes chronicling the bygone history of opera when the sets were huge and the singers very static. And my goodness these sets were huge. And hideous. The Catholic guilt driving La Forza del Destino has never been writ larger. Its apogee arrived with the scene in the monastery of the Madonna of the Angels where our hapless heroine Leonora seeks sanctuary. Above row upon row of monks with lighted candles was a statue of the Christ crucified so gigantic, so vulgar that we were straightway transported to the Verona arena. Likewise the battle scenes, where token realism laughed in the face of theatrical invention. Tableaux after tableaux arrived posed and bloodless. But the most serious loser in all of this was Verdi's librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, whose dramaturgy was rendered feeble and directionless by the absence of theatrical imagination.

Pappano did everything he could to reverse that, but it was not a war he could easily win. His closest ally was the Leonora of Violetta Urmana. From the very first scene she laid out her fabulous voice and the skills of its deployment in rich tone, even production and heartening musicality. I can't say that she has ever really touched me before, but she did here. Her fierce commitment was nailed with thrilling precision, her vulnerability with melted phrasings taken shyly away on the breath. Her climactic aria, "Pace, pace mio Dio", was so good that for a moment it pulled the slackening drama out of the doldrums.

She sang everyone off the stage - with the exception of Ferruccio Furlanetto as Padre Guardiano. In their key scene together - one of the finest in all Verdi - shifting emotions were conveyed entirely in the contrasting tension between the two voices, his dark bass at once intimidating and benevolent.

Leonora's warring lover and brother, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo, brought two of Muti's La Scala protégés, tenor Salvatore Licitra and baritone Ambrogio Maestri. Maestri is built like he should play Falstaff, and has a fine voice, but one displaying some problems across the break which, to my ears, impeded the seamlessness of those mellifluous Verdi phrases. Licitra doesn't have much sense of those. His tenor voice has real possibilities, not least in its strength in the middle and bottom registers. But he has no natural feeling for line and for too much of the evening he descended into crudeness and poor intonation.

Should Muti be invited to conduct at Covent Garden again? If so, we must insist he leaves the productions at home.

To 6 November (020-7304 4000;