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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Il trovatore: Cecily, how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother?

The old canard is that all you need for Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. That’s stupid on a number of levels, one of which was illustrated in this Met revival, which is super excellent despite being a rep night with only one known name. It was the best of what you can expect from a non-Event performance: an old favorite (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena) with an exciting newcomer (Guanqun Yu as Leonora) and a few more workman-like performances that nonetheless had much to enjoy. Even Daniele Callegari’s conducting was pretty good! However, this production is so bland that you almost wish David McVicar had made a frame narrative about the singers we are seeing this evening. Nah, not really.

Verdi, Il trovatore. Met Opera, 10/17/2012. Production by David McVicar (revival), conducted by Daniele Callegari with Guanqun Yu (Leonora), Dolora Zajick (Azucena), Gwyn Hughes Jones (Manrico), Angel Òdena (Conte di Luna), Morris Robinson (Ferrando).

Il trovatore’s lusty embrace of melodrama provided Verdi plenty of chances to write exciting music for so-called “extreme situations.” But today, when that opera is considered part of our cultural pantheon and operatic characters are conventionally analyzed in psychological terms, no one is sure as to how seriously we should take it. Contemporary opera-goers tend to be a rather literal-minded bunch who want to follow the plot and identify with the characters’ plights, and with Trovatore they can find their credibility awkwardly tested. Even after you untangle the complicated back story, you are left with plot devices like baby-swapping, gypsy curses, infants thrown in fires, and a very sketchily drawn political situation, plus a few points where the motivations of the characters are, shall we say, obscure.

David McVicar’s Met production takes the friendliest path out of this mess by telling the story in as straightforward and easy to follow a way as possible, making the characters lively and sympathetic when applicable, and keeping the action moving with his turntable stage. The early nineteenth-century costumes and looming walls of set are fine and not over the top without doing much of anything. What distinguished the first run was McVicar’s personal touch with the singers, who gave fairly nuanced interpretations based on their personal standards. It doesn’t look like he directed this revival (some of the anvil-hitting guys were wearing shirts–a dead giveaway), and the blocking is more schematic this time around. When Ferrando goes up the stairs, it looks like he’s doing it so he’ll sing out from above the chorus, not because he wants to go anywhere.

It’s still an effective-enough staging that gets the job done without too many egregious clichés, but I would like to see something that has a stronger perspective and doesn’t seem to want to put the mellow in melodrama. For a red meat sort of opera this thing seems pretty mild-mannered in its earnest (and, granted, mostly successful) attempts to avoid unintentional comedy. Everyone’s measured reactions give the impression of logic and rationality, but is Trovatore happening in a rational, reasonable sort of place? I don’t think so. McVicar’s concern seems to be ironing out a problem opera into something no one can really object to (except on grounds of boredom). For a more inspired director with a more adventurous audience, the opera’s unusual aspects might present not a liability but an opportunity to do something interesting and distinctive.* Oh well.

But this kind of affair lends itself easily to changing casts, making it an asset to a repertory house like the Met. The highlight here was very young Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu as Leonora, making a super Met debut with this run. She’s got a beautiful, sweet, creamy lyric soprano that fills the house well except for something of a loss of power at the bottom end. Her stage presence is a naturally sympathetic and she infuses her singing with both outstanding musicality and details of character. This was an unusually convincing and complete, integrated performance, particularly for someone at a very early point in her career. (She recently came in second at Operalia. I do hope she goes and spends some quality time with Donna Anna, Mimì, Marguerite, Violetta, etc. instead of killing herself with too many really monstrous roles so early, even though she has the technique to handle them.)

Making his house debut this performance was baritone Angel Òdena as the Conte di Luna. His instrument is formidable, a gravelly, imposing, somewhat dry baritone that has real Verdi quality. Unfortunately his sense of rhythm and pitch tended to be vague, particularly in the big aria, and his sense of character more mustache-twirling than anything else. Still, considering he was the cover and got virtually no rehearsals, an impressive effort. Also impressive if not entirely satisfying was Gwyn Hughes Jones as Manrico. He is an honorable performer with a bright, ably used tenor, and sings with consistent taste and style. Unfortunately the voice is a little on the small side for this role at the Met, and lacks power at the top, where his narrow vibrato turns towards a bleat. While an OK actor he didn’t make an enormous impression, character-wise. Morris Robinson was a vocally smooth and sonorous if less than dramatically imposing Ferrando.

I have left Dolora Zajick for last because her Azucena is a legendarily known quantity. She was announced as ill but sounded as mighty as usual (high notes were a little short). She showed some signs of remembering McVicar’s direction (she was in the premiere cast of this production), but her main appeal remains her ability to sing louder and more excitingly than anyone else. She does that, and inarguably knows her way around this music. It’s a classic portrayal, and still thrilling.

Conductor Daniele Callegari’s goal seemed to be to go as fast as possible, but excitement isn’t amiss in this opera. Over than the speediness, it was competent and usually flexible when it needed to be. Sometimes Òdena didn’t seem entirely with him, but the orchestra was fine.

If you need some satisfying operatic protein in your diet, consider this revival, which has two performances left this fall and will return in the spring with the same conductor and an entirely different cast.

*For more interesting Trovatori I recommend considering Dmitri Tcherniakov’s dark Brussels effort (not yet on DVD but streamed on the internet this summer, so hopefully coming). I am also curious as to what Olivier Py’s Munich production will bring next summer, considering his Lulu was extreme enough as to almost melt my eyeballs.

Guanqun Yu sings “Tacea la notte,” then follow some photos of previous casts.

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