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
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain. And, if the second half of the programme - 20th-century American classics with the odd folky diversion - did feel a little like a prolonged encore (which was followed by three further suavely delivered numbers complete with mischievous banter and musical high-jinks), this did not lessen the musical and theatrical accomplishment or the evident delight of the Wigmore Hall audience, although I confess to feeling a bit of a sugar-rush
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
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?