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
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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?