24 Aug 2010

Un ballo in maschera at the Teatro Real

The greatest dramatic tenor and soprano roles have proven irresistible to Marcelo Alvarez, who started primarily as a lyric tenor, and Violeta Urmana, whose first career success came as a mezzo.

Both offer a stage persona with a sort of “Golden Age” stature — they are attractive creatures, if generously proportioned, and neither is much of an actor. Sadly, what is less than “Golden Age” for both Alvarez and Urmana is the quality of their vocalism. Alvarez has ample voice and a pleasant tone. He lacks, however, a final reserve of power and authority to truly put across the big moments that stand as landmarks in the most famed roles of Verdi and Puccini. Urmana manages the higher stretches in soprano roles better than some may have predicted after her transition from mezzo roles, but her voice has less color and warmth in the stratosphere.

The audience at Madrid’s Teatro Real for this production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera tends to favor Urmana’s Amelia over Alvarez’s Riccardo, judged by the ovations heard in the DVD taken from live performances on September 25 and 28th, 2008. A voice heard live has much more impact than one heard recorded, even if recorded in the clean, detailed audio picture available on this Blu-Ray edition. Urmana’s Amelia is convincingly tormented over her misbegotten and adulterous passion for Alvarez’s “Governor,” though she and her co-star have next to no chemistry. Nothing she does in the role’s biggest moments has much originality, but she undoubtedly has the role in her voice. Alvarez, however, seems a shade too small at times, and even in the lighter, “comic” side of his role’s music, he comes across as goofy more than endearingly light-hearted. He works hard, producing some good moments, but the sheer effort gets a bit wearing.

Urmana dwarfs her on-stage husband, Marco Vratogna as Renato. With his shaved head, lean figure, and outsized-golden earring, Vratogna manages to cut a masculine figure and yet one not necessarily believably interested in Urmana. Modern stagings have sometimes played with a homo-erotic context to the romantic rivalry between Riccardo and Renato. Director Mario Martone doesn’t seem to be suggesting that here. Neither Urmana’s Amelia nor Alvarez’s Riccardo seem the type for Vratoga’s Renato. Martone doesn’t seem to be suggesting much of anything, at any rate. This is one of those expensive-looking productions lacking an incisive perspective to make the drama come to life. Sergio Tramonti’s sets range from the fussy detail of act two’s concrete ruins to the tastefully stark mirrored ballroom of the last act. It’s all stylish and yet dramatically inert.

Elena Zaremba as Ulrica and Alessandra Marianelli, at opposite ends of the female voice spectrum and in roles that can either steal the spotlight or really annoy, manage to be effective but not all that memorable. Jesus L√≥pez Cobos and the Madrid forces provide all these singers with excellent accompaniment — lush, rhythmic, and propulsive as needed.

At the moment there may not be better casts for these roles and this opera than found here. The great act two duet comes off well, and Vratogna strikes some sparks in his later scenes. Anyone with a sudden urge to see a recent Ballo may find enough entertainment value here. But it’s far from “Golden Age.”

Chris Mullins