The latter ranges from stark, modernistic exercises to over-the-top re-interpretations (such as the recent Berlin "Rigoletto" set on the "Planet of the Apes"). And between these two polar extremes lies a vast wasteland of unexplored territory, melding, one hopes, the best of both a production true to the essence of the opera's story and yet imaginative, evocative, and truly contemporary.
On this global picture of opera stagings, where does this Euroarts DVD of a Leipzig Un ballo in maschera fall? Nowhere. It is not on the same planet. Director Ermanno Olmi and designer Arnaldo Pomodoro appear to operate in their own dimension. "Cloud cuckoo land" would be your reviewer's guess.
The problem lies in the sheer baffling oddness of the production, which doesn't appear to be symbolic or referential. The singers perform as if they are in a traditional production. But where they are, dressed as they are, remains bewildering. After some fairly traditional peasants appear to sing the king's praises, military men appear in oddly cut tunic-jackets, carrying spears. Riccardo wears an upscale, monk-like gunny-sack brown affair, and the unfortunate Renato must perform in a laughable silver-lamè outfit. Court ladies stroll on in gowns with bizarre ruffled sleeves and hoop skirts. The men sport a sort of stiff beret, and the women have fan-like headdresses. The cast tends to move into position and stand stiffly before a painted backdrop of odd metallic slashes and cross-hatches. This is not the Boston of the revised libretto or the Swedish court of the original setting. In fact, it appears to be a cross between The Wizard of Oz and a Star Trek episode.
As odd as the opening act strikes the viewer, the Ulrica episode takes the production down several levels. Her psychic sessions are held in a run-down basement that has spike-like columns piercing through at odd angles. Costumed as an inter-stellar porcupine, Anna Maria Chiuri, a strong Ulrica, is allowed almost no physical movement above the waist, but give her credit - she makes use of some very expressive eyebrows.
For act three, a reasonable facsimile of a room gets wheeled onstage, and when Ricardo appears to sing his aria, he sings from behind a desk in a space beside a wall, on the other side of which Amelia sits despondently. The director and designers deserve credit for that effective idea, but then the ball begins, and the descent into weirdness resumes. With the cast so obviously in "maschera" to begin with, the production team goes for oddly shaped gold-flaked masks of various shapes, including a donut-shaped one for tenor Massimiliano Pisapia (emphasis on the "mass"). After Renato stabs the King (your reviewer expected a ray gun blast), four game dancers lift the hefty singer up and carry him around the ramp of a circular platform, at the top of which Amelia joins him for the final lines. This is not recommended emergency procedure for stabbing victims.
Non-sensical and laughable, the whole affair seems to be a display piece for the set and costuming inspirations of the creators, with no explicable rationale your reviewer could discern.
In the meanwhile, a cast of unfamiliar names gives decent performances. Pisapia has a lot of voice, although the top lacks the security and sheen that would help ameliorate the dulling effect of his unimpressive physique and deportment. Chiara Taigi, a striking woman with a passing resemblance to the slimmed-down Deborah Voigt, tends to get shrieky at the top. Judging her acting in this production would not be fair. Franco Vassallo gets the heartiest response at curtain; he has more even production from bottom to top than the two leads, though the basic instrument is not especially attractive.
The two best singers appear in smaller roles. Eun Yee You makes a charming Oscar, and has some fun with her cheesy ensemble at the end, as she totters around on outsized platform shoes. And the Samuel of Tuomas Pursio impresses with a rich, handsome bass.
The best contribution of the evening comes from conductor Riccardo Chailly and his Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. Verdi could ask no more in terms of energy, impetus, and drama. If only the production didn't work so hard to distract from the musical performance.