Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer: David Alden
Gustavo III: Marcelo Álvarez
Count Anckarström: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Amelia: Sondra Radvanovsky
Ulrica: Dolora Zajick
Oscar: Kathleen Kim
After an exciting Tempest at the Met with my friend Nicole a couple of weeks ago, I was very much looking forward to going back for an hopefully just as exciting new production of Un Ballo in Maschera on Saturday night with my friend Dawn. Seriously, what better way to kick off the holiday season than with one of Verdi's most enduring operas performed by some of the best Verdian voices around? Even the fact that it would last three and a half hours - one of which would be for the two intermissions and the short break - did not spoil our anticipation. Hey, at least there would still be two and a half hours of Verdi.
The seats were not quite as fabulous as the last time I was there - I guess miracles like that one only happen once in a blue moon - but the last row of the orchestra had the definite advantage of guaranteeing that nobody will be breathing (or snoring) down our necks, the view was still pretty good and it allowed for a quick exit. If it had not been for the overhead created by the Parterre above, which partially prevented the music from fully coming to our area, our seats could really have been a prime location for undisturbed enjoyment.
Inspired by the real-life assassination of Swedish King Gustav III during a masked ball and targeted by government censors and the Pope because it was dealing with monarchy, among other squabbles, Un ballo in maschera ended up having two versions, the politically correct one, taking place in late 17th century Boston (?!) and the original one, set in 18th century Sweden, which the Met had rightfully chosen to present this time.
Political conspiracies and love triangles may not be very original storylines, but they can still provide some quite explosive material to work with, and Verdi did not hesitate to dwell into this one and create his own plot. However, what really sets Ballo apart is the Italian composer's canny combination of a healthy dose of profoundly lyrical drama, some periodic sprinkles of light comedy and a one-time but decisive touch of the occult, resulting in one of his most popular works.
Like with any Verdi opera, the cast for this Ballo was key to success. And just a look at it would have made any Verdi lover's heart jump with joy. To begin with, the part of the ill-fated king went to veteran Met tenor Marcelo Álvarez, whose bigger-than-life singing strongly conveyed the dreadful tug-of-war between his mind and his heart. Throwing himself whole-heartedly into the role, he convincingly carried out some beautiful arias, ranging from his ardent declaration of love to Amelia to his final stirring plea for forgiveness.
His secretary and most trusted friend, Count Anckarström, was impersonated by first-class baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Another familiar face to the Met spectators, he was his usual brilliant self, making full use of his stunning voice and charismatic presence. Expertly controlling the wide array of dark tones he always seems to effortlessly muster, he powerful expressed his undying commitment to the king, his sudden shame and consequent raging anger at the apparent betrayal, his iron will when plotting and carrying out revenge.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky was a hands-down splendid Amelia, the woman unluckily stuck between the two men. Granted, she is not a particularly subtle actress, but her unabashedly vibrant, deeply earthy singing more than makes up for it. She is also an immensely generous singer who can easily engage the audience, as could have attested an obviously die-hard fan sitting in one of the first rows of the orchestra and quietly taping her first aria on his iPad. Later on, the intensely emotional opening scene of Act III she shared with Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a truly grand moment by two terrific artists and clearly reminded me why I go to the opera in the first place.
The rest of the cast was equally skilled, starting with Dolora Zajick, the well-known go-to Met mezzo-soprano when you need force and vitality. As the fortune-teller Ulrica, she simply did not let anyone or anything stand in her way, even while wearing a matronly outfit. The trouser role of Oscar was vivaciously sung by coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim, who perkily added some comic moments to the whole proceedings. The chorus had a memorable turn, among many others, at the end of Act II, when they were sneakily making fun of Renato after his wife revealed herself.
While the singers unanimously provided very satisfying vocal performances, the production was not so worthwhile. In fact, I had detected trouble even before the curtain rose when I saw its depiction of The fall of Icarus by Blondel. As a supposed metaphor for Gustavo's fate, it looked pretentious and unconvincing. Moreover, it kept on popping up often, looking inevitably out-of-place in the sleek modern décors. Speaking of the sets, which mostly consisted in black and white geometric shapes, it was hard to tell what they were meant to convey: The austerity of the Swedish court? The bleakness of some pre-war or post-war era? Both? Neither?
The stage directions did not help much either. The first odd sight of the evening was the young page Oscar wearing a white suit and a pair of wings. Really. That he would wear the same get-up while leisurely puffing on a cigarette during the ball was just as puzzling. Had he become the symbol of perverted innocence or was he just being a mischievous servant? At that same fateful ball appeared a bunch of men wearing black outfits and black wings, making you wonder how many of those had been deemed necessary to let the audience know that something bad was about to happen. Much fuss was generally going on during the crowd scenes such as the visit to Ulrica, which would have been fine if it had made sense, but most of the time, it just felt like a lot of hot air.
The ball scene provided a couple of eye-catching tableaux with chic black and white costumes, huge mirrors, an understated backdrop and an elaborate choreography, but it was too little too late. Stylization may be a swell concept, but without a master plan to refer to, it unsurprisingly falls flat. And so it did over and over again.
However, if the production left a lot to be desired, the music for sure did not. The right singers were there, brightly adding their respective vocal tours de force to Verdi's superb score, which was enthusiastically performed by the Met's fabulous orchestra under Fabio Luisi's unwavering baton. The melodies soared with flying colors and each aria got a chance to fully display its very own qualities. Best of all, the pace remained thankfully brisk and before we knew it, we were out by 11:30 PM, just as planned. A final positive note on an overall positive experience.