David Alden hosts a Ballo in maschera at the Met

The Met’s taut, spooky new Ballo in maschera is the best new production this house has seen in some time. David Alden has finally brought his trademark surreal, minimalist film noir aesthetic to New York. Welcome to the early 1990’s, Met– the age when we all were scandalized by David Alden and thought he was crazy (not including me, because I was in elementary school and not going to the opera yet,* but you get the idea). But a production like this is always welcome, however belated, and compared to most of what we see at the Met it seems very fresh and modern. There’s nothing particularly shocking or radical about it; it’s certainly watered down from his European work, but it’s good drama and it would be a shame if the plentiful time-delay boos present at the premiere (I suspect due to the production’s deficit of horses and bayonets) detracted from its very real merits. The singing isn’t uniformly fabulous but it’s probably one of the better casts that can be assembled for this opera, and they are trying very hard.

Verdi, Un ballo in maschera. Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012. New production premiere directed by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Adam Silverman, choreography by Maxine Braham. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marcelo Àlvarez (Gustavo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Count Ankarströrm/Renato), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia), Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Dolora Zajick (Ulrica). 

I can’t describe this opera better than Alden did himself in a recent interview: “the bizarre combination of serious political material, high Italian melodrama based around the hackneyed stuff of marital infidelity, and an almost operetta-like lightness of being, is experimental and dislocated and sets this apart from his [Verdi’s] other masterpieces.” Ballo is an opera much beloved by the scholarly set (and also Luigi Dallapiccola), who celebrate its radical mix of styles and apparently impressive motivic integration. I’ve always had an “mmmkay” reaction to this because Ballo has never convinced me onstage–the mixture of comic and melodramatic styles seems like a bad idea and it’s never had any emotional resonance, possibly because its characters don’t get much exposition. The music is frequently brilliant, but Amelia is a hysteric, King Gustavo a well-meaning doofus, Renato a bore, and smug coloratura soprano page Oscar one of the most annoying characters in all of opera. It has not been an opera to attract many Regie types, either, with Calixto Bieito’s notorious toilet production (which I haven’t seen) being a notable exception. At the Met, Alden’s replaces a traditional, heavy production by Piero Faggioni whose most memorable moment was, when I last saw it, Dmitri Hvorostovsky getting tangled up in his own cape.

Alden’s production does an impressive job with the first issue, coherence, but I’m afraid still nothing on the emotional front. Maybe it’s just that sort of opera. The “it’s all a dream!” trope might be, er, tired but for an opera this jumbled it’s a smart move and Alden deals with the changing tone with aplomb. We open with King Gustavo, dressed in a vaguely 1930’s/40’s suit, dozes off in a chair. An enormous Baroque painting of Icarus falling from the sky hovers over the stage, and Oscar enters flapping a pair of white feathered wings. This is kind of ingenious, because he evokes so many things–the painting above, Cupid (remember that Alden has directed a metric ton of Baroque opera in Europe), and the death figures who will finally appear in the finale. The walls are covered in hypnotic wallpaper (Alden and set director Paul Steinberg are wallpaper connoisseurs second only to Richard Jones), the stage steeply raked. The time and place are ambiguous, and never become any clearer. (This seemed to bother lots of people but I’m OK with it?) Gustavo and some other characters will hang out in this chair periodically–also genius because Alden has given any tenor his dream: a chance to sit down, take a break, and have a drink of water while onstage.

The dreary setting constantly threatens to break, with the music, into exuberant comedy. Office drones sit at stainless steel desks but Oscar incites them to dance; a worried group of citizens visits crazy old lady Ulrica only to have some fun-loving sailors bring the thing to life. (Ulrica later pulls a memento mori skull from her purse to show Amelia.) Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense, but Alden can also keep the action straightforward and tight when need be. Renato and Gustavo’s relationship is clearly drawn early on–Renato is worried that his friend might be a little dim– and Renato’s dismissal of Ulrica’s prophecy has a clear undercurrent of denial. Purists will probably be offended at the lack of any gallows in Act 2, but the Personenregie is engrossing and the entrance of the conspirators from various trapdoors and upstage genuinely creepy. Act 3 begins in a claustrophobically tiny white room, featuring a physically intense confrontation between Renato and Amelia–the photo of Gustavo on the wall might seem kind of cheesy, but it makes the thing work. The ball features, on Met standards, remarkably OK dancing, and the ending suggests that everyone is still trapped.

While it still didn’t quite convince me that Ballo is a masterwork (I know, I know, but I don’t feel it), it’s a compelling ride with the appeal of one of those crazy old B-grade noirs where all sorts of random stuff happens and none of the characters are terribly complex but it still keeps us involved. (Have you ever seen Detour? It’s bananas. Something like that.) I’m not sure if the Icarus stuff really adds the symbolic heft that is intended–OK, so Gustavo is a king who is taking increasingly treacherous risks, but so what?–but it doesn’t hurt and adds a note of fantasy to the  disjointed nature of the setting. Alden gets impressive performances from his cast, most of whom are not quite known for their nuanced and natural acting abilities but convincingly make a real show here.

Marcelo Alvarez worked hard all evening in the long and difficult role of Gustavo, concentration written on his face. He managed to act (and dance!) pretty well, only occasionally slipping into the cliched gestures that usually constitute his entire performance, but the effort expended was a little too obvious. Similarly, his lyric tenor was pushed to its limits, producing an often-pleasant bright sound at the top but unstable and unsure of pitch in the lower reaches. He has a short musical attention span, tending to sing in words and phrases rather than paragraphs and lacking a long legato line. This was not a problem of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but he was also pushing his voice and frequently sounded blustery. His voice has an absolutely glorious, velvety sweet spot around middle C, but the rest of the range sounds strained. The final section of “Eri tu” was his strongest singing of the evening–one suspected he had been saving his voice–and showcased his excellent phrasing. Acting-wise he was suitably intimidating and more nuanced than his usual cape-twirling, and also managed to completely outclass his tenorial colleague in looking good wearing a fedora.

On the ladies’ side, Sondra Radvanovsky sang a knockout “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which sits in her English horn-like lower range and built beautifully over the course of the aria. I wish the rest of her singing had been as musical, but like Alvarez she often sounded somewhat raw and blunt. Her distinctive vibrato makes her tone instantly recognizable, and her intonation only occasionally sagged flat. Amelia is a hard character because we never know who she is, and Radvanovsky didn’t really solve this problem, but she did seem earnest. Kathleen Kim sounded sweet and bright as Oscar and darted around as demanded. I find this character insufferable but she almost made Oscar bearable, not leaning excessively into the tra la las. Dolora Zajick ,Queen of Chest Voice, made a mighty noise as Ulrica and didn’t really act too much. I do want to carry around a skull in my purse too, though.

Fabio Luisi conducted like someone who doesn’t mind being left to the end of the review. I am always wishing for Pappano in this repertory but Luisi was perfectly able, keeping things efficiently moving if not always nail-biting. I wished for juicier melodrama and more contrast but it was clean and competent and the orchestra sounded really excellent.

It might not be a reinvention, and if you’ve seen any of Alden’s work before you basically know what to expect from this one, but it’s a solid production that makes sense of the piece, and I hope the Met audiences give it a fair chance.

Ballo continues through December.

*I made my first acquaintance with David Alden when visiting Munich at the tail end of the Peter Jonas era at the Bay Staats. Baroque mayhem!

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  1. Maybe it's just me but I think it's a shame to see Broadway in a Verdi opera.

    The Met is not going on the right path, IMO.

  2. Broadway? There's nothing Broadway musical theater-ish about this production. You want Broadway, look at the dances of any number of old Zeffirelli productions still being performed at the Met.

  3. I'll be seeing this next Thursday, and I think I will like it. I listened to the broadcast last night, and have no quarrel with any of the singers, except I always dislike Oscar, but I know others appreciate the notes. The videos on the Met sight are appealing, and I'm looking forward to this.

  4. I'm very excited to see this, though I do miss Mattil (I know she's wrong for it but I just love her!) and I think Blythe would be superior as Ulrica. Are you going to see her in it?

  5. A few examples of on-topic comment topics:
    A) anything about the Met's Ballo in maschera
    B) why you think this opera is in fact the best and I am wrong
    C) your tribute to Dmtri H's baritude
    D) the comments above

    An example of off topic commenting:
    A) trolling.


  6. That is a lot more satisfying to me that watching some of the "trashy
    and stupid" productions that replace the previous ones.

    If it "aint"
    broken dont' fix it ! I could cite many examples but we all know which ones I
    am referring to. I am seeing BALLO on Monday. I hope I don't have to add
    it to the list! the same goes for the "new" Rigoletto and Parsifal.

  7. Thank you Zerbinetta for a finely detailed review. Sounds like anonymous also wrote the review on Parterre. I recently saw David Alden's Maometto II in Santa Fe. It, too, was very very clean (as you describe this production and taut (a good word also for Maometto II). I've seen a few of Mr. Alden's European operas on video, and since seeing Maometto and reading your description, it seems appropriate to tag this production with "David Alden does opera in the U.S."

  8. Sorry for all the deleted comments (and my typos above, I was commenting from my phone), Alden seems to have summoned the trolls! Hint: personal attacks (whether towards me, any Alden, or anyone else) and giant rhetorical questions about the nature of musical expression do not make constructive conversation.

    Comment No. 10, there is a very big difference between David Alden, who has been an internationally acclaimed opera director for decades, and the director for Rigoletto, who is an entirely unproven quantity. The difference between this thoroughly competent and well-conceived production and the embarrassingly inept efforts of opera novices such as Des McAnuff is an argument for hiring experienced, major talents like Alden. And if you can't see anything differentiating this production (which I gather you have not yet seen, and I bet you haven't seen Rigoletto either, considering that it hasn't premiered yet) and, say, Faust, I suggest you need to try to just get over your apparent distaste for modernized visuals and think about the story and music for a minute.

    With all due respect to all prior participants in the Met's last Ballo production, I don't remember a damn thing from that performance except Hvoro's unfortunate cape incident, so I would consider that production to be pretty broken.

  9. Just got home from the Ballo. I'm sorry but I have to disagree with your review. I don't find the production contributes anything to the music. It all seemed very obvious, the angular rooms, the crazyness of the Tom character. It all seemed very superficial. Another spare deconstructed Euro-production.
    On the other hand, Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky were brilliant, Alvarez was great, and I spent the evening trying to figure out whether Keith Miller's cane was a prop or he really hurt his leg. His voice was healthy though.

  10. I have never much liked this opera musically, and your comments really nail why – yeah, some beautiful numbers, but it just does not hold together very well. Oscar belongs right up there with the Fiakermilli on the annoyance scale, imo.

    I've been interested to see who liked and who didn't like the production; almost all of the other reviewers I've read like it much less than you or outright dislike it. This makes me want to see it! Not sure I will be able to get to the broadcast, however.

  11. Having seen the production in HD I can only say that one must, MUST, close one's eyes to get the true beauty of Verdi's masterpiece. Actually, it wasn't the sets that bothered me so much, I happen to be a big fan of greys and silvers and like natty pinstripe suits and fancy gowns and the like, but the nutty ideas expressed were simply too much for this feeble brain.

    Why all the cigarette smoking without once taking a puff or blowing smoke out of one's mouth? Stupid, stupid, stupid. And what was that Sam doing when he lifted Amelia's scarf from the ground and decided to have a private smell contest with it? I was ready to throw up from that one. And why was it necessary to have Oscar sport these huge strange white wings? Don't tell me, I really don't want to hear the symbolism, thanks. And whose idea was it to have the King act like some kind of buffoon instead of the dignified head of a country?

    Total embarrassment.

    David Alden go home.