OPERA / The cross she has to bear: Edward Seckerson on The Force of Destiny, Mark Elder's ENO swan-song

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LEONORA finds her God in the closing moments of Nicholas Hytner's new production of Verdi's The Force of Destiny. A cruel white light illuminates her ravaged form; the world she leaves behind is a vision of ugliness, a barren terrain strewn with terracotta crucifixes and rocks against a queasy green sky - a Giotto painting glimpsed in a nightmare. Hytner is in no doubt about the kind of world that forsakes Leonora: it isn't fate or the force of destiny, but family, church, and state that conspire against her.

As the curtain rises, she is sat bolt upright, hands clasped, a prim, spinsterish figure in choking high-necked frock. Her father stands formally by her, another of his lectures at an end. It's the family portrait - still, cold, and loveless. But as this short, sharp, shocking opening scene unfolds, Hytner and his marvellous Leonora, Josephine Barstow, play beautifully upon her fears and uncertainty. Better the devil she knows than to elope for love into a world she doesn't. At the climax of the scene, her brief moment of rapture with Don Alvaro is all the more precious and the more cruelly abrupt. No sooner has her father gasped his last and cursed her, when the wall flies out and the world outside come swarming in to engulf her.

Hytner's world is a gaudy, heartless mess of boozers, whores, soldiers, and priests. Where there is light and gaiety, it is fierce and vulgar. The tavern and military camp scenes both tumble brashly on to the stage, the latter spilling over in a grotesquely 'operatic' tableau as Preziosilla (a much- larger-than-life Anne-Marie Owens) and her bawdy cohorts advance on us with their warmongering song of victory. Hytner is good with large forms, big ensembles. He and his designer, Richard Hudson, have created here the epic sweep of open space and moving surfaces.

I did wonder about the huge revolving staircase at the centre of their scheme (an echo of Busby Berkeley?), but it makes for fluency and a sense of filmic dissolve in the shifting focus of the battlefield, and creates a gaunt black shroud as we descend with Leonora into the depths of her isolation. On the extreme left of the stage is a sheer black wall from which scarlet crucifixes protrude like so many arrows. Her prayer at the door of the monastery is delivered arms outstretched, as if waiting for the nails.

These are dark, oppressive images, true to the drama, true to Verdi's sombre religiosity. Hytner's stage blockings are always strong and well-motivated, his one-to-one encounters sharp and purposeful - like the scene in which Leonora's lover and brother, close comrades and now suddenly mortal enemies, stalk and circle each other, like two animals warily keeping their distance. And Hytner gets performances - from Barstow, one of her very finest. She is the most committed and physical of performers but rarely have I heard her in finer shape vocally. That distinctively covered sound of hers was opening to this music; she was filling words and phrases as if her heart were about to burst. I've heard great singers say much less with the long, floated supplications of her final aria, and to see her take fright and scamper up the entire length of the staircase at its close shall for me remain the enduring image of the evening. Jonathan Summers (a swarthy, resolute Don Carlos) is another singer who's always at his best in this house, and Edmund Barham (Don Alvaro) has the most virile of tenor voices if he could only find the style.

For the church, John Connell's grateful bass was a boon in the Father Superior's music and Alan Opie's earthy Melitone was clearly revelling in the catchy colloquialisms of Jeremy Sams' new translation. So, finally, to conductor Mark Elder whose potent silences in the overture gave notice of the brave, expansive, and stirring reading to come. His Verdi has been the cornerstone of his years at the helm of ENO. There has to be more where this came from.

Box office: 071-836 3161.