Un Ballo in Maschera (Metropolitan Opera) (Live In HD)

Ballo_Alvarex-XL1-393x590Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is perhaps sadly overlooked when considered alongside the composer’s greater known works, such as Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853) and Aida (1871), but Verdi’s wonderful three-act, 1859 opera, inspired by true events, contains some of the most intense, dramatic and enigmatically compelling music he ever wrote, beautifully fusing an array of musical styles, including glorious bel canto, French comic opera and stirring, emotionally fraught melodrama (for which Verdi is arguably best known) to produce a beguiling, thrilling and captivating piece of opera.

Featuring a libretto by the Italian playwright Antonio Somma, which was itself adapted from Eugène Scribe’s five-act libretto for the 1833 opera ‘Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué’ (Gustavus III, or The Masked Ball) by Daniel Auber, the plot details the events leading up to the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was murdered as the result of a political conspiracy whilst attending a masked ball at the Royal Opera House, Stockholm on 16 March 1792. Due to censors refusing to allow a tale of regicide on the stage, Verdi was forced to to move the action of the opera from Stockholm to Boston (during the British colonial period) and re-work the central character as Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick (and governor of Boston). However, this production, as with many modern stagings, restores the original Swedish setting and character names, adding a greater sense of historical context and authenticity to the piece and staying true to the author’s original intentions.

un-ballo-metThe production boasts two truly outstanding performances from the male leads, in the form of the wonderful, elegant tenor Marcelo Álvarez in the central role of King Gustavo, and the charismatic, powerful baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the King’s closest friend and confidant Count Anckarström, with both delivering deep and effectively achieved performances and demonstrating both rock solid technique and apparently relative ease with intense, haunting and vocally superb displays of what is arguably Verdi’s most wonderfully dark and compelling work.

Sondra Radvanovsky delivers an overall very strong performance as the afflicted Amelia, effectively conveying the subdued anguish of the character and giving us wonderful glimpses of her rich and textured lower soprano, with an intense and emotional portrayal of the role, however, she does adopt such an unorthodox and, I hate to say, unattractive style when she sings (unfortunately enhanced courtesy of the ‘Live in HD’ cameras) that there are times when she becomes quite difficult to watch, which is a great shame as the vocals are wonderfully delivered.

It is always a joy to read Stephanie Blythe’s name on any cast list, as she has long proved herself to be one of the finest mezzo-sopranos in the business, and her performance here, as the mysterious fortune-teller Madame Arvidson, is no exception, once again compelling audiences with her rich, powerful and effulgent vocals and reaching down to the eerie depths of her register to effectively evoke a sense of mystery and shadow to the character.

10BALLO-articleLargeThe coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim is on wonderful vocal form in the trouser role of Oscar, the King’s page, effortlessly soaring to the very highest notes, though there were a few occasions where her voice fared too light to travel over the music and was lost in a striking melange of choral strength and orchestral power. However, the decision of using the character of Oscar to symbolise Icarus (as depicted in a confusing and slightly imposing mural looming over the stage), complete with feathery wings and a ridiculous artificial goatee, is very peculiar and puzzling indeed, and, not adding any artistic value of context to the production at all, soon becomes very tiresome.

The supporting cast are equally as strong, with two highly notable performances from the vocally brilliant Keith Miller and David Crawford as the villainous conspirators Count Ribbing and Count Horn, respectively.

Overlooking proceedings, conductor Fabio Luisi drives the production at an energetic and efficiently quick pace, drawing out superb performance from both the cast, chorus and the fine Met orchestra, with a fast, intense and authoritative rendering of Verdi’s dark, brooding and emotive score.

Ballo_three-XLDavid Alden’s surreal and ambiguous new stripped back staging (set in an unnamed and almost dystopian Sweden, some time in the early twentieth century), playing out on Paul Steinberg’s cold and minimalist mirrored-box set, essentially drained of colour, does not fully realise the potential of the piece and ultimately does little to inspire or evoke a powerful audience response. Alden’s decision to incorporate so many unnecessary and distracting devices into the staging just threatens to obscure and depreciate the value of both the central plot and the devious themes interweaved, and just leaves me relishing the prospect of a traditional, darker and more mysteriously achieved production of this great opera.

What does slightly annoy me with these broadcasts is the decision to both take audience members backstage and interview exhausted cast members in the intervals, and whilst some might welcome the opportunity to witness the proceedings behind the scenes at this great opera house, for me, this insistence on cutting backstage and filming unprofessionally dressed stage crew talking and constructing (or tearing down) what we are about to witness, or have been witness to, does nothing but detract from the captivating spectacle of the opera, completely diminishing the tension, immersive quality and magic initially built up.

dsc_2948_1-1024x631The next Live In HD broadcast will be on December 15 at 12:55 pm ET/5:55pm GMT with the visually breathtaking production of Verdi’s great Egyptian drama ‘Aida’, starring Liudmyla Monastyrska as the eponymous Ethiopian princess, Roberto Alagna as the heroic Radamès and Olga Borodina as the Egyptian princess Amneris. Continuing on from ‘Ballo’, the production will once again be conducted by maestro Fabio Luisi.

Running time: 3 hrs. 30 minutes (approx.)

Photography: Ken Howard

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