Un Ballo in Maschera
Taigi, You, Chiuri; Pisapia, Vassallo, Wallén, Pursio, Bujor; Chor der Oper Leipzig, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Chailly. Production: Olmi. EuroArts/Unitel 2055107 (Blu-ray), 137 mins., subtitled
My encounter with this 2005 Leipzig Ballo was launched with a listen, as I prepared a dinnertime marinara before my serious viewing began. Very soon, the pleasurable sounds — a smooth, supple prelude, a handsomely urgent "La rivedrà" — were enticing me to catch a view; almost as soon, the risible sights were giving me slack-jawed pause. The sets and costumes are the work of the well-regarded sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro; and if I'd had a few spare pomodori from my cooking, I'd have had to fight a strong urge to hurl them at the screen.
This is a Boston Ballo, but I doubt that had it been set in Stockholm the designs would differ or give any more clue to its locale. They're clearly sculptural in concept: the ballroom scene boasts what looks like an overhead airplane collision (which might elicit praise as pure art), and the boxy costumes for the men (with incongruous tam-o'-shanters for Riccardo and Renato in Act I) and the voluminous tulle and gauze for the women raise regular chortles: Ulrica looks like the Statue of Liberty trapped in a desiccated Christmas tree; and when Amelia begins her gallows scena, shecalls to mind a sapphire-hued cousin of Barney the dinosaur. Traffic director of this parade of eyesores is another illustrious Italian, film auteur Ermanno Olmi, whose high repute is given no boost by a production that, when it isn't (in the wrong way) amusing, simply bores the viewer. (Oh, that inert chorus!) If either man has a shred of affection for Verdi's opera, it is not visible here.
There's partial compensation, if maybe not enough, in the musical merits. Chief among them is the fine Riccardo of Massimiliano Pisapia, a tenor little heard in the U.S. His firm, lovely lyric tenor has sufficient heft for the impetuous governor's more passionate outbursts but scales down lovingly for his tender moments; and while physically he'd look more at home as a Sopranos character, his acting is alert, engaged and affecting. Also good is Franco Vassallo's Renato, with an apposite voice and manner; the same might be said of Anna Maria Chiuri's tough-cookie Ulrica but for that insane sabotage of a costume. About Chiara Taigi's glamorously platinum-tressed Amelia I'm of two minds — admiration for the basic voice, style and commitment; reservations over the harsh top notes and less-than-finished technique. Eun Yee You is yet another annoyingly perky pecker of an Oscar. Tuomas Pursio and Metodie Bujor make a good-looking, good-sounding, unusually young pair of conspirators.
Riccardo Chailly elicits wonderful playing from Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester and clearly knows how to generate (intermittent) excitement, but I missed the dramatic rise and fall of Fabio Luisi's splendid Met Ballo of last autumn. And just how, as an A-list conductor of brilliant achievement, could Chailly have condoned the miserable spectacle that his two operatically illiterate compatriots so maladroitly devised?
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