BalloGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Fabio Luisi, David Alden, Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Keith Miller, David Crawford | The Met Live in HD, 8th December 2012

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is an opera of wild dynamism, marrying together scenes of jarring contrasts in a way that makes it difficult opera to stage dramatically and musically in any coherent or consistent way. It certainly not an opera I’ve seen handled convincingly on the stage, but David Alden’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, if it doesn’t quite bring it all together, at least points towards a way that might work. Not playing it entirely straight, not playing it up for laughs either, but playing it scene by scene the way Verdi wrote it.

Quite what Verdi’s true intentions for the work were is of course open to speculation. The work, originally entitled Gustavo III, based on the real-life historical assassination of King Gustav III at a Masked Ball in Sweden in 1792, was notoriously banned by the strict censorship laws of the period in revolutionary Risorgimento Italy, who were unhappy about the depiction of an assassination of a monarch, forcing Verdi to rewrite and rename the characters involved. Even then, the changes applied to the new version, called Una Vendetta in Dominò, weren’t enough to appease the censors in Naples, so a furious Verdi took the work to Rome where it was first performed with the setting changed to Boston in North America as Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. The work is now performed, as it is here at the Met, in its original Swedish setting, but clearly Verdi was forced or felt the need to make compromises to the work in order to avoid censorship even in Rome.

None of this however is likely to have had much of an impact on Verdi’s choices for the musical scoring of the piece and, seeking to show off his range and work with musical arrangements and arias more along the lines of La Traviata than the more through compositional style that he was gradually moving towards, Un Ballo in Maschera consequently has some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies, striking arrangements and dramatic situations. Every dramatic situation is pushed to its emotional limits - whether it’s the love of Gustavo for Amelia, the wife of his secretary, the friendship of Gustavo and Renato which is to fall apart on the discovery of the affair, or the hatred felt by the king’s adversaries - all of it is characterised by Verdi with an extravagance of passion.

An extravagance of melody too which, accompanying the melodramatic developments of the plot’s regal and historical intrigue, to say nothing of incidents involving gypsy fortune tellers, can lead the work to switch dramatically at a moment’s notice between the most romantic of encounters to the deepest gloom, from declarations of love to dire threats of vengeance. The key to presenting the work coherently - if it’s at all possible - is to try to ensure that these moments don’t jar, and with Fabio Luisi conducting the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera here, musically this was a much more fluent and consistent piece than it might otherwise have been, without there being any alteration or variation to the essential tone of the work.

Inevitably, any director is going to look for a consistency of style in the approach to the stage direction, but that’s probably a mistake with this work. It’s not a mistake that David Alden makes. I must admit, having seen Alden’s fondly humorous day-glo productions of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Deidamia, I had a suspicion that Alden might settle for playing up the camp comic side of Un Ballo in Maschera - which is certainly there and probably a more convincing way of playing the work than attempting to do it completely straight if the Madrid Teatro Real production is anything to go by - but I was wrong. Alden plays every single scene in accordance with the tone established by Verdi, light in some places, thunderingly dramatic and brooding in others, but always operating hand in hand with Fabio Luisi to ensure that this can be made to work musically and dramatically.

Where the staging has consistency of theme and a consideration for a meaningful context for the work however, was in Alden’s typically stylish and stylised production designs, created here by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Evoking a turn of the twentieth century setting that takes the work entirely out of its historical context (notwithstanding the personages reverting to their original Swedish names), the production had the appearance of a Hollywood Musical melodrama, as lavishly stylised as a Bette Davis melodrama, but consistent within its own worldview, and it worked splendidly on this level. The set was a little overworked in places, with dramatic boxed-in angles and heavy Icarus symbolism in a prominent painting, but it clearly responded to the nature of the work, playing more to the sophistication that’s there in the music than the often ludicrous libretto. Alden however even found a way to incorporate this into the production with little eccentric touches - such as the eye-rolling madness of Count Horn, which is not a bad idea.

Similar consideration was given towards the singing and the dramatic performances of the cast assembled here, which was - as it needs to be - forceful and committed. The combination of voices was also well judged, the Met bringing together a few Verdi specialists well-attuned to the Verdi line - Marcelo Álvarez (who I’ve seen singing the role of Gustavo/Riccardo before), Sondra Radvanovsky and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky - all of them strong singers in their own right, but clearly on the same page as far as the production was concerned. A few regular Met all-rounders like Stephanie Blythe and Kathleen Kim also delivered strong performances in the lesser roles of Madame Arvidsson and Oscar that really contributed significantly to the overall dynamic. This was strong casting that brought that much needed consistency to a delicately balanced work where one weak element could bring the whole thing down.

Alden and Luisi were clearly aware of this and played to the strengths of the charged writing for these characters. Act II’s duet between Álvarez and Radvanovsky was excellent, hitting all the right emotional buttons, each of the characters delving deeply to make something more of the characters than is there on the page of the libretto. Hvorostovsky brought a rather more tormented intensity to Renato in his scenes with Radvanovsky’s Amelia that seemed a little overwrought, but this paid off in how it made the highly charged final scene work. Un Ballo in Maschera is still a problematic work, but with Luisi and Alden’s considered approach and this kind of dramatic involvement from the singers, the qualities of the opera were given the best possible opportunity to shine.