Verdi’s great opera made its first appearance on the Met’s HD telecast series Saturday December 8, 2012. Un Ballo in Maschera has been in the standard operatic repertoire ever since it’s first performance in Rome in 1859. Ballo is clearly one of Verdi’s greatest achievements. Despite not having a tune that everyone recognizes, like Rigoletto’s La donna e mobile, Traviata’s drinking song, Trovatore’s anvil chorus, or the march from Aida, it still ranks 25th in frequency of performance among all operas ever presented at the Met. The reason for the work’s endurance is it’s wealth of emotionally apposite music that, as is typical of Verdi’s art, reaches the core of shared human feeling.
The libretto is an adaptation by Antonio Somma of an earlier one by Eugene Scribe who was the librettist for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Ballo has much in common with Meyerbeer’s earlier work. Oscar the page is reminiscent of Urbain; both are trouser roles written for high sopranos. The second act love duet recalls the fourth act duet from Huguenots matching or even exceeding its passion and urgent intensity.
This new production was directed by David Alden whose mounting of Maometto II at Santa Fe earlier this year was a great success. This version has bright lights on muted colors, a lot of right angles, a stuffed leather chair, people popping out of holes, and an omnipresent baroque style mural of Icarus falling after coming too close to the sun. Alden appeared to think that Icarus had great subtle symbolic import. I had no idea what he was doing up there other than obeying the law of gravity. Many have called this interpretation close to film noir. Everything was clean and sharp – not noir. The costumes are from the first part of the last century. To put the staging in perspective, ask anyone who’s seen it whether he could envision Zinka Milanov (the greatest Amelia known to me) in it. The answer will define the viewers take on this production. I think Alden couldn’t have gotten Zinka within 1,000 miles of his staging. Nevertheless, I was not bothered by all the directorial whimsy as the singing was so good that Verdi’s masterpiece shone through in all its operatic glory.
The opera’s biggest part is that of Riccardo or in this version Gustavo III of Sweden who was assassinated at a masked ball in 1792. Verdi originally intended the story to be that of King Gustav’s murder, but censorship forced him to downgrade the king to a count who became the governor of colonial Massachusetts. Verdi was happy with this alteration and never proposed that the tenor be restored to his throne, but modern directors know better than he. So nowadays we get the King of Sweden who, incidently, was shot rather than stabbed and who didn’t die on the spot but lived for another 13 days before he succumbed to infection.
Marcelo Álvarez was Gus or Rich or whatever. After his mediocre outing in last year’s Il Trovatore I was worried that he would not be up to this demanding role; but he was. Though he started as a lyric tenor he now has the vocal focus and power to handle Verdi’s spinto parts with aplomb. His acting in the first act was a little goofy, but that may be Alden’s fault.
Sondra Radvanovsky is an accomplished Verdi soprano of the first rank. She sang Amelia with beauty and feeling. She was in complete vocal control throughout the entire performance. If there’s anything to complain about it’s that she doesn’t have the rich creamy sound that shows off Verdi’s most lyrical lines to best advantage. The stupendous second act love duet, the most passionate Verdi ever wrote, was delivered by both singers with all the raw emotional energy that it demands. Why the two lovers were 30 feet apart through most of the duet is strange; but they eventually found each other.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky is without equal in the great Verdi baritone parts. Today’s performance shows why. His voice is rich and bright. He can make it do anything he wants it to. Eri tu was sung with beauty and restraint and that was the problem. Maestro Luisi said during an intermission interview that he wanted soft phrasing for much of the music. That’s fine, but I think that Eri tu would have been better served by an all out attack. Hvorostovsky has the firepower for such a delivery, but he went for subtly which he artfully achieved. Despite all his fine phrasing he received the least applause following any of the opera’s great numbers. Now past 50 he still looks great. A wonderful artist.
Stephanie Blythe was cast as the fortune telling witch Ulrica. Though she only appears in one scene she made the most of her brief time on stage. Re dell’ abisso affrettati was sung with power and the rich sound required for Verdi’s daunting mezzos. Ms Blythe seems to be able to sing anything in any style.
Soprano Kathleen Kim was Oscar the page. She has a pleasant high soprano voice. She spent much of her time onstage wearing wings. Perhaps she was a descendant of Icarus. She also has a goatee and mustache. Her white suit did not seem consistent with a noir approach.
Keith Miller and David Crawford were archly conspiratorial as the plotters Sam and Tom. Miller, the former fullback, is so good in the smaller roles he’s been assigned at the Met that he deserves a shot at something bigger. The scene at the end of the second act is one of opera’s great tours de force. Renato taking his wife back to the city after she had a tryst with his boss and best friend is forced by the conspirators to allow her to reveal her identity. His horror at her treachery is coupled with the mirth of the plotters. The effect is unique in opera. They laugh while he’s consumed with fury.
This leaves Fabio Luisi’s conducting. He fully realized the works great soaring lyrical moments. But Verdi can thunder as well and at these moments of explosion he seemed unable to bring forth the piercing orchestral thunderbolts that Verdi demands. Perhaps this was a function of a telecast; the sound in the house may have been different from what was heard in a movie theater. Regardless, more was needed than was delivered.
In summary a great opera that received a first rate performance. Idiosyncratic staging did not detract from the overall worth of the show. If you missed the first go around catch the replay.
UN BALLO IN MASCHERA
Giuseppe Verdi–Antonio Somma
Riccardo (Gustavo III)………….Marcelo Álvarez
Renato (Count Ankarström)……….Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Ulrica (Madame Ulrica Arvidsson)…Stephanie Blythe
Samuel (Count Ribbing)………….Keith Miller
Tom (Count Horn)……………….David Crawford
Silvano (Cristiano)…………….Trevor Scheunemann
Set Designer…………………..Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer……………….Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer………………Adam Silverman