14 Dec 2012
The Met’s Un Ballo in Maschera difficult to unmask
Director David Alden’s confusing production concepts in Verdi’s A Masked Ball may make you wonder whether you came to the right party
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Director David Alden’s confusing production concepts in Verdi’s A Masked Ball may make you wonder whether you came to the right party
Somewhere in the heated imagination of director David Alden there may be a convincing production of Verdi’s Januslike masterpiece, Un Ballo in Maschera, part Italian barn-burner and part French operetta.
In this new production, Alden’s considerable talents did not come to the fore until Act Three, Scene One. This is where Renato, counselor to King Gustavo III of Sweden, confronts his wife Amelia. She has been unfaithful to him by loving the King from afar. The King loves her in return, but the two have never managed to consummate the relationship, this being an opera. Betrayed by both his King and his wife, Renato, heretofore a loyal lieutenant, is in a murderous mood.
Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica Arvidsson
For this grim scene Alden and set designer Paul Steinberg reduced the playing space on the enormous Met stage to a small box that is all angles with a stark black and white color scheme. The ceiling slopes down at a vertiginous angle. The walls close in on the emotionally tortured couple as Renato says he will kill her; he then swears vengeance on the King.
Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia are both fine actors, so Alden had much to work with in this scene. He introduced an element of sexual tension between the couple — a hint that Renato would take her in violent sex one last time before killing her. Hvorostovsky handled her roughly, lending a particular urgency to their singing. When the two conspirators (the Counts Ribbing and Horn) assisting Renato in the assassination plot suddenly appeared through a back wall of the boxy set, the effect was chilling.
Had the entire production been at this level, the Met would finally have a hit Ballo. But it was not.
Alden told the opera website Parterre Box that he sees King Gustavo as “a dreamer and a fantasist.” This is the inspiration for his conception. To demonstrate how out-of-control the King is, Alden compares him to Icarus, the mythological boy who disregards the advice of his father and flies too close to the sun. An enormous mural showing Icarus falling into the sea is a constant presence in the production.
This choice is banal. Indeed, Alden bristled when Met General Manager Peter Gelb used the word “obvious” for the Icarus image in an intermission interview. Gelb backpedaled furiously from this honest assessment as soon as he realized Alden’s displeasure. But it is obvious, and boring, and it adds nothing to our understanding of Verdi’s conception.
Alden has directed this dreamy fantasist of a king as a goofball from a Marx Brothers film. He laughs a lot (some of which is in the music). He yearns, he swoons, and he waves his arms. But he is never credible as a strong king beloved by some of his people and hated by others. The tragedy of his doomed love for Amelia never registers.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Anckarström and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III
Alden has imposed no other vision than this on the opera. Is it at heart a political drama about the assassination of a tyrant, or the assassination of a good man by his enemies? If so, why are the conspirators Ribbing and Horn almost invisible in this production until Act Three? Or does Alden see Ballo as simply a tragic love triangle with a political backdrop?
Alden’s stage pictures (with the exception of Act Three, Scene One) are designed to heighten the fantasy. They are by turns risible or puzzling: dancing waiters; an Oscar (the loyal page to the King) who flaps her own Icarus mini-wings (talk about obvious) and smokes cigarettes; courtiers in brown trench coats; and the King slumming in a fisherman’s sweater topped with a royal ermine cape seemingly cadged from a Salvation Army store.
So it was left to the singers to make some sense of this hodgepodge. They did so with mixed success.
Hvorostovsky, one of the world’s leading Verdi baritones and a matinee idol with his shock of perfectly groomed white hair, brought a gravitas to the proceedings that was sorely lacking. It was hard to imagine that such a serious man could be counselor to this frivolous king. Hvorostovsky delivered both of his major arias with power, particularly “Eri Tu” in Act Three in which he hurls invective at a portrait of the king. He and Radvanovsky were believable as a couple in serious need of marriage counseling.
Radvanovsky spent the entire opera looking anguished. She is most effective when singing quietly. She floated some beautiful notes at the end of her Act Two aria as she searches for some magic herbs to rid her of her feelings for the King. When she sings at a mezzo forte or forte, and at the top of her range, she is somewhat raw. But she is an honest artist, and she did her best to make sense of the enigmatic Amelia. Her duet with the King in Act Two when they acknowledge their forbidden love was electrifying, and it received a huge ovation.
As the King, tenor Marcelo Alvarez was badly in need of better direction from Alden. He is not a natural actor. Playing an unstable character trying to fly away from his royal duties is not easy to do. Alvarez could not pull it off. The intrusive close-ups of the HD telecast didn’t help convince the audience that there was much of anything on his mind.
Mark Schowalter as the Judge and Kathleen Kim as Oscar
The middle and top of Alvarez’s voice remain solid and exciting, but he is losing the low notes, and he clipped some of his phrases. Powerful as it is, his voice is a bit characterless. It’s hard to keep his basic sound in mind. This was not a performance to put alongside Tucker or Peerce or Bergonzi, not to mention Pavarotti.
Kathleen Kim has given impressive performances at the Met as Olympia (in Hoffman) and Zerbinetta (in Ariadne auf Naxos). She has lost some of the agile, silvery quality to her voice, however. Perhaps her stint as Chiang Ch’ing in Nixon in China changed her instrument. Oscar, a character drawn from French operetta tradition, must be sung lightly, with humor and great agility. Alden worked against the happy sound of Kim’s arias by making this Oscar menacing. She wore a mustache and goatee, smoked, and flapped her wings. Alden also suggested that Oscar was not even faithful to the King; she was a witness to the assassination plot and clearly knew the King was a marked man. Yet she did nothing to stop it. All this undermined Kim’s performance.
The stentorian mezzo Stephanie Blythe delivered her usual blast-furnace performance as the fortune-teller Ulrica. No production concept can undermine this artist.
As Fabio Luisi conducts more Met performances, his strengths and weaknesses are starting to come into view. The Met Orchestra played with precision. His tempos were fleet. Everything was tidy, and spot-on. But, although he is Italian, this performance lacked an Italianate throb. He didn’t give his singers much room to just run with it. As a result, the performance was highly professional but cold. Listen to the CD of a live Ballo at the Met conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos (available from Sony and the Met). It’s a bit reckless, but the Greek Mitropoulos is more Italian than Luisi, and his performance crackles with electricity. Luisi’s merely hums with efficiency.
Director Elijah Moshinsky’s 1980 Met production of Ballo seemed to be set in a sauna. Now this. Is Ballo really that hard to pull off?