In Review > North America

Un Ballo in Maschera

The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Met Ballo hdl 113
The final scene of Un Ballo in Maschera in Alden's new Met staging, with Kim, Álvarez, Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky
© Beth Bergman 2013
In Review Met Ballo lg 1 113
The Met's new Ballo, with Álvarez and Zajick
© Beth Bergman 2013
In Review Met Ballo lg 2 113
Álvarez and Radvanovsky as Riccardo and Amelia
© Beth Bergman 2013

David Alden's ambitious new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the Metropolitan Opera (seen Nov. 8) is illogical, at times contrived — yet it works. The telling point is not so much the high concept imposed on the opera; what counts is the tension generated by the concept and an insistent dramatic force that builds to a powerful finish. Alden avoids the major pitfall of any Ballo production — the risk of anticlimax in the final ball scene after a whole evening of masquerades, unmaskings and reversals. The musical performance under Fabio Luisi mustered similar intensity, despite some uneven singing.

Before a note is heard, Alden's central premise is telegraphed by a painting of the mythological Icarus hanging in front of the Met's closed curtain; the rococo image returns on the painted ceiling in nearly every scene. Yet Icarus, the misguided young hero who failed to master flight and crashed to his death, offers few logical parallels to Verdi's Riccardo/King Gustavus. The opera's hero falls victim to naïve trust, not hubris; Riccardo recalls the enlightened rulers beloved of opera seria, such as the emperor Titus, who save the day by renouncing their love and forgiving enemies.

A viewer may wince at the sight of pageboy Oscar dancing through the prelude wearing a huge set of Icarian wings, which he'll don again at the ball. But even if you resist the mythological parallel or fail to recognize it specifically, there is growing malaise in the overhead painting of an upside-down airborne figure, pressing down more insistently on the action with each successive scene and providing virtually the only bright coloring on a stage of grays, blacks and browns evoking the 1930s. The final scene has Icarus alone, now cut out from the original painting, as if in free fall.

The deployment of the almost ubiquitous chorus and ballet troupe also has subliminal dramatic power in the hands of Alden and choreographer Maxine Braham. The dancers seem unduly agitated, but their dynamic interweaving with chorus members makes the whole gang appear to be dancing. And these figures' shifting identities — as courtiers, bureaucrats, waiters, sailors, loyal subjects, conspirators — suggests a world of ambivalence that keeps the viewer somewhat off balance.

The vagueness of Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes is echoed by the clean, spare Bauhaus-style sets designed by Paul Steinberg. In the final scene, a wash of brilliant lighting effects (by Adam Silverman) plays over ornate structures that, for once, appear regal and massive: the architecture itself seems to sport a disguise. The revelers' costumes, except for those of the principals, are identical black; they are, in a way, abstract. This anonymous blackness serves as the perfect foil for the scarlet clothing of vengeful Renato and also contributes to the production's most original dramatic touch.

This extraordinary moment occurs in the furtive duet between Amelia and Riccardo: they recognize one another and communicate from opposite ends of the stage, sotto voce, across a sea of masked dancers — a logical impossibility, but theatrical gold. Alden has devised here a spatial dramatization of emotional intimacy and forced separation. The subtlety is especially welcome after an evening of arm-flailing and collapsing, and after some clumsy contrived business (e.g., conspirator Tom defacing the king's portrait, Oscar chain-smoking like a silent-movie diva, etc.).

In the most rewarding of the individual performances, tenor Marcelo Álvarez encompassed Riccardo's varied moods and coped well with most of the lengthy role's vocal demands. His medium-sized tone sounded forced at some climaxes, but he was also deft at lightening the volume and coloring for musical repeats, as in the barcarolle. Unfortunately, by the final act he lacked cushioning for the legato lines of the aria "Ma se m'è forza perderti."

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's Amelia was old-school, big-scale, desperately intense, nearly monochromatic. Her singing harked back to the dense, chesty Italian dramatic sopranos of the interwar years (Cigna, Caniglia), rather than to the Met tradition of pliant Verdi lyricism (Milanov, Tebaldi, Price) that once seemed to have a disciple in Radvanovsky herself.

Dolora Zajick, the commanding Ulrica, had a similar monolithic quality as a boozy fortune-teller who is called upon to drum up business at one point by using a microphone — a superfluous device for this robust mezzo. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was an athletic Renato, almost frightening in his outrage, but this singer's fine musical instincts were foiled by obvious vocal discomfort. Kathleen Kim's Oscar was not helped by the directing or the costuming; she sang brightly, rhythmically, though without ideal warmth. Keith Miller contributed solid bass menace as the conspirator Sam.

Luisi's lively tempos, and an unmistakable pulse underlying even the more lyrical rhythms, sometimes overwhelmed key moments of dialogue or soul-searching. Thus, in the fortune-telling scene, Ulrica's actual prophecy to Riccardo was almost brushed aside in the gallop toward the explosive reaction by the whole ensemble. A bit more expansiveness might have abetted Amelia's music. But for the most part, the inexorable pace was exhilarating, in keeping with the cumulative force of the staging, especially in the ensembles. The Met chorus and orchestra performed with impressive precision. spacer


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