The Bavarian State Opera is streaming its new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Mashera from its website until March 27. By European standards this is a pretty tame staging. The time was moved to around 1930. The place was neither colonial Massachusetts nor Sweden, but some indeterminate place in Operaland. In general, the staging looked as if Verdi had decided to write Cabaret. I expected Joel Grey to appear at multiple points during the performance. Riccardo was offed by a pistol despite the frequent references to the dagger specified by the libretto. There was a single set for the whole opera which featured a super king-sized bed and a descending staircase that move from the top of stage left to the bottom of stage right. There were no masks at the ball. The whole staging was very teutonic verging on Wagnerian with its focus on death. Oscar, a male part performed by a female turned out to be a heterosexual crossdresser. Don’t ask, just watch before the show goes offline. There was a single intermission after act 1. Nevertheless, the action did no harm to Verdi’s miraculous score and at places even added to it.
The Munich house has a La Juive to be directed by Calixto Bieito coming up in June. Having seen what he did to Don Giovanni in London (scroll down the linked page to find the review) I predict he’ll set this opera in Dachau. It too will be streamed. I can’t wait to see it. He’s also got productions to be staged in London and New York. He’s from Catalonia by way of Mars. I hope his upcoming Met Forza makes it to the HD broadcasts. If these telecasts can survive that experience, they’re immortal. The New York Times reported that Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said he expected that the new Bieito production of Forza would “stimulate audiences, not shock them.” Is he in for a surprise or perhaps he’s just cynical. Gelb is the kind of guy who has made a whole career out of one good idea – the Met HD telecasts.
Back to Munich. Ballo, of course, succeeds by the efforts of its performers and here everything went mostly right. The tenor role, Riccardo, is one of Verdi’s best. It really needs a spinto, but a full voiced lyric tenor can get by if he has a good technique. Piotr Beczala has a lovely lyric tenor and did very well with role, though a little more muscle would have helped. His reading of the part was much the same as he gave at the Met last year. Apropos of nothing at all, Beczala as made up in this production is a dead ringer for actor Matthew Rhys.
Romanian baritone George Petean has a lyric baritone which he uses with great skill, but his voice too is a little underpowered for one of Verdi’s great baritone roles. His modestly equipped voice needed a little more horsepower for ‘Eri tu’. Petean has sung 9 performances at the Met. Four as Marcello in La Boheme and 5 as Valentin in Faust. He’s scheduled to sing Germont in New York next February.
The only principal that had all the decibels required for her part was the German soprano Anja Harteros. She gave a passionate and full throated rendition of the woman torn between love and marital duty. Here is Harteros and Beczala in Act 2 duet which is opera’s definitive depiction of passionate but unfulfilled love.
Mezzo soprano Okka von der Damerau was a powerful Ulrica. High soprano Sofia Fomina was the gender confused Oscar. She also carried a ventriloquist’s dummy around most of the time which she eventually passed off to Beczala. I am no longer quick enough to deduce the dummy’s role in the ensemble. Dummy or not she sang very well, though she portrayed Oscar as menacing rather than the typical witless teenager he (or she) is usually made out to be.
The conspirators, Tom and Sam, were two of the many Joel Grey epigones. Almost everybody was in top hat and tails most of the time. After starting the second act in a nightgown, Amelia appeared thereafter in a bridal gown.
Zubin Mehta who turns 80 next month, looked every bit as old as he is, but conducted with vigor and passion. He truly understands how Verdi should be lead. My only quibble is the two drum beats in the first scene of act 3 which were tepid rather than heralding impending doom.
If you want access to the audio of this performance which will go offline in a week, use the link below. In summary, a very good performance of one of opera’s greatest masterpieces. I don’t think I’d buy it when it comes out as a DVD, but I’d certainly watch it for free as is possible until March 27.
Okka von der Damerau
High Court judge
Joshua Owen Mills
Bavarian State Orchestra
Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera