19 Sep 2010
Un ballo in maschera at the Washington National Opera
Verdi’s 1859 hit Un ballo in maschera is an inspired choice to open an operatic season.
Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
Verdi’s 1859 hit Un ballo in maschera is an inspired choice to open an operatic season.
Intrigue, jealousy, murder and mayhem amid the sparkle of a masked ball certainly provide all the ingredients necessary for a successful inaugural gala. Yet director James Robinson’s version of the Ballo that has opened Washington National Opera’s 2010-2011 season is for the most part a gloomy affair, deliberately bereft of pageantry and panache. The color palette is mostly silver, eggshell, and beige; the chorus is dressed in identical drab gray, their steel-gray masks completing the picture of cold, faceless mannequins. Perhaps the director wanted to set the passionate principals of the drama (who — both heroes and villains — are permitted color) in sharper relief against the bland complicity of the chorus that tends to break into sycophantic hymns of praise at every opportunity - a habit that both the conspirators of the story and quite a few members of the audience, in my experience, tend to find extremely irritating.
As is fashionable nowadays, the action in this Ballo has been moved back to the 18th-century Swedish court of Gustav III, Verdi’s original location, which spares an American audience from the torment of imagining the 17th-century Boston, MA, populated by the very un-pilgrim-like Renato and Riccardo. Otherwise, this production is almost entirely traditional, which seemed to suit most of the principals I saw on Tuesday, September 14th, quite well. The Italian imports (tenor Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo and baritone Luca Salsi as Renato, Count Anckarström) in particular tended to gravitate towards the footlights at every opportunity, singing to the audience rather than to each other. Soprano Tamara Wilson as Amelia also tended to limit her acting to an occasional turn of the head. Yet, especially toward the end of the opera, it somehow worked for her, lending her tragic character dignity and poise that, in her predicament, Amelia could certainly use.
The only person in the production whom I spied having any fun at all was Micaëla Oeste’s lovable page Oscar. Oeste’s light, pure tone and her fast, precise, flexible coloratura made short work of the difficult part. She also monopolized virtually all the stage business in this Masked Ball, dancing, flirting, and mischief-making her way through the performance and keeping alive the bubbly spirit of French comedy, which Verdi so carefully planted into his score and which the other performers occasionally seemed to have misplaced. The one exception was the tasty “laughing chorus” at the end of Act 2, led with a suave nonchalance by Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins as Count Ribbing and Count Horn respectively.
One of the highlights of the evening was Salvatore Licitra, who will surely not lack for admirers in the DC area after his performance as Gustavo. Licitra’s is a powerful, metallic tenore di forza that we demand of our Dukes, Alfredos, and Radameses; it carried without strain, easily taking and holding the mandatory high Bs of Gustavo’s part. The singer was at his best in the bel canto strains of his cantabile arias, and as their prominence in his part increased in Acts 2 and 3, his performance soared, the famous grand duet with Amelia and the Act 3 romance Ma se m’è forza perderti garnering plenty of well-deserved applause. All that power, however, seems to come at the expense of flexibility, which made for a few awkward moments in Act 1, in which Gustavo must be at his comic best. While the opening La rivedrà nell’ estasi was lovely, Licitra’s solos in the stretta, Ogni cura si doni al diletto and particularly in the fabulous quintet, È scherzo od è follia in Act 1 Scene 2, lacked not only an articulate coloratura, but occasionally the basic pitch and rhythm, especially at the break-neck tempi chosen by the conductor, Licitra’s compatriot Daniele Callegari. The bright spot in that scene was the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, who stole the show as the fortune-teller Ulrica (that is, Mam’zelle Arvidson, according to Verdi’s original cast list). Manistina’s deep, rich, darkly powerful voice carried easily, with perhaps only a little too much vibrato - an echo of the Moscow singing school that nurtured the singer, a former Operalia winner. Immediately impressive was the opening invocation; despite the distraction of her unfortunate costume and wig (a cross between Macbeth and The Witches of Eastwick), one could hear both the menace of Azucena and the mystery of the Pique Dame, Ms. Manistina’s two signature parts.
Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III and Elena Manistina as Ulrica
As is so often the case, the overall impression of an opera production is either ruined or redeemed by the decisions of its design team, and the WNO’s Ballo was no exception (sets by Allen Moyer; original lighting by Duane Schuler; lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). The set for the fortune-telling scene, for instance, features the back panel of the palace ballroom, raised to hover diagonally over the stage, while Gustavo is forced to hide, in a most undignified fashion, behind a pile of left-over ballroom furniture. The choice of the ballroom’s fancy candelabra, partially covered with strips of cloth, somehow made to illuminate the Act 2 graveyard scene, is also rather puzzling. And alas, the pitiful sight of the choristers carrying their own chairs does make one reflect upon the depth of WNO’s budget woes. The “less is more” approach, however, works wonders in the opening scene of Act 3: set between the two panels - the floor and the much-too-low ceiling, with the sides draped in black, the austere design projects the oppressive and menacing atmosphere of the Anckarström household with spectacular power. Luca Salsi was equally spot-on with his Eri tu, one of Renato’s signature pieces and undoubtedly Salsi’s best contribution on Tuesday - his opening Alla vita che t’arride was shaky enough to make one wonder whether the part was too high for him. Like Salsi, Tamara Wilson’s Amelia grew on me as the evening progressed: her first act was unremarkable; the grand scena in Act 2 was better, although I was not entirely convinced by the duet; but the heart-breaking Morrò ma prima in grazia in Act 3 Scene 1, with its subtle mezzo voce, was truly memorable. That scene indeed proved one of the most potent in the production, if not for the orchestra - the timpani so loud and the brass so stunningly off-pitch, one could almost understand Amelia’s desire to end it all.
Salvatore Licrita as King Gustavus III and Tamara Wilson as Amelia
In the final analysis, this WNO production of Un ballo in maschera, although uneven, is worth seeing, both for the highlights in the cast and for some powerful moments in direction and design. After all, the company is not spoiling us for choice this season, with only one other production — Salome — between now and March. Stay tuned!