Powerhouse Singer, Headless Rebels, Leggy Dancers: London Stage

'Dirty Boogie'
The number "Dirty Boogie" from "Burn the Floor" at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. The show's tagline is "Ballroom. Reinvented." Source: Jessica Huie PR via Bloomberg

The plot of Verdi’s “La forza del destino” (The Force of Destiny) is wonderfully crazy even by operatic standards. There are coincidences, there are accidents, and the soprano spends most of the story as a monk. No wonder it’s known as a director’s graveyard.

It’s also a singer’s paradise, and a new staging at London’s Holland Park Opera assembles a dream team to do the score justice.

Every time the plot veers off in another loopy direction, the glowing voice of Gweneth Anne Jeffers supplies the improbable reactions of her character, Leonora, with emotional reality. Her lover accidentally shoots her father. Then she loses him in the dark. Then she becomes a monk. It’s the maddest career trajectory for any of Verdi’s heroines, and yet Jeffers invests it with meaty vocal passion and heart-rending pathos.

Peter Auty is Alvaro, Leonora’s hapless lover. When he suddenly recognizes his beloved after many years -- confusingly, they’re both monks by this stage -- he’s just in time to watch her get stabbed to death. It’s crazy. When Auty flings out a golden B flat or delicately shades a phrase, it’s also meltingly beautiful. If he can’t suspend your disbelief, then no one can.

Mark Stone has the right ringing-tingling high baritone for Leonora’s mad, monomaniacal brother Carlo. Carole Wilson fires out superb military rataplans and roulades as the soldier-gypsy Preziosilla. Bass Mikhail Svetlov booms with terrific authority as Guardiano, yet another monk.

It’s all held together with an impressive sense of cohesion and rightness by conductor Stuart Stratford.

For some reason, which is never made clear, director Martin Duncan chooses a Spanish Civil War setting and fills the bare black stage with wooden chairs. It doesn’t make much sense. Fortunately with singing this good, it doesn’t matter. The thrills are all in the throats. Rating: ***.

Chopped Actors

There are thrills of a different nature at the National Theatre, where Georg Buechner’s 1835 French Revolution play “Danton’s Death” climaxes in a spectacular guillotining scene, designed by Christopher Oram. The actors’ heads go under the blade, and they get chopped off. No smoke, and no mirrors. It’s a can’t-believe-your-eyes “wow” moment.

Up to that point the pleasures are mixed. The play itself is a baggy affair that pits Danton, a life-loving revolutionary, against the hypocritical and tyrannous Robespierre. It’s all too easy to see where the author’s sympathies lie, and Robespierre’s counter-arguments in favor of social control aren’t given the weight they need. It’s like watching a boxing match in which one of the fighters has his hands tied behind his back.

Still, Toby Stephens is enormously charismatic as Danton and his terror in the face of death is affecting. Elliot Levey does his best with the one-note role of Robespierre, and director Michael Grandage creates a simple and fluid period-costume production with a spectacular finish. Rating: **.

Sequined Rumbas

Television shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” have created a whole new audience for ballroom classics. Perhaps they’ll be tempted to go to “Burn the Floor,” a celebration of the waltz, quickstep and rumba, that stars Brian Fortuna and soap actress Ali Bastian (both from the above TV show).

They’ll probably be disappointed if they do. Ballroom is a partly silly and partly titillating mix of sex and sequins. What we get is a bland, cruise-ship series of tableaux in which danger is lacking.

It doesn’t want for energy, and the dancers are terrifically athletic. The women’s legs seem to stretch all the way to their sternums. The men’s pectorals glisten and ripple. It’s all easy on the eye.

The problem is that choreographer Jason Gilkison doesn’t encourage much individuality in the 21 dancers, and their sense of characterization often only extends to an all-purpose anguished expression or the occasional exaggerated sneer. You can’t make much eroticism out of that. Rating: * ½.

“La forza del destino” is in repertoire at Opera Holland Park through Aug. 14. Information: http://www.ohp.rbkc.gov.uk or +44-845-230-9769.

“Danton’s Death” is in repertoire at the National Theatre until Oct. 14. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.

“Burn the Floor” is at the Shaftesbury Theatre. See http://www.shaftesburytheatre.com or call +44-20-7379-5399.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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