Hvorostovsky, Dmitri


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.

FaustCharles Gounod - Faust

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Evelino Pidò, David McVicar, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Michèle Losier, Daniel Grice, Carole Wilson | Live HD Broadcast, 28th September 2011

It’s not too difficult to see why Faust is considered one of the jewels of French grand opera, nor why, featuring as it does in no less than three opera houses in my viewing schedule this quarter up to Christmas (Covent Garden followed by the Paris Opéra and the Met in New York), it still remains a popular fixture in the repertoire of many major opera houses around the world. With a tragic love-story, whose content is boosted somewhat with a cruel encounter between evil and innocence, all wrapped up in a sense of religious fervour, the purpose of the storyline might deviate from the original intentions of Goethe’s classic tale, but it has all the right elements for a passionate opera subject.

The storyline however is actually the least convincing thing about Faust, but the emotional range covered across those Manichean divisons provide Charles Gounod with everything he needs to spin it out into a wonderful variety of musical arrangements. It opens with the aged scholar Faust despairing and disenchanted with a life devoted to study that has failed nonetheless to provide any great revelations or even meaning. Given the chance by the demon Méphistophélès to seek the pleasures elsewhere, it’s a vision of a beautiful young woman, Marguerite, that convinces Faust to enter into a bargain that will mean the loss of his eternal soul. The dark, nihilistic tone of the opening – the first word spoken by Faust is a bleak utterance of “Rien”, “Nothing” – gives way to a sense of joyous hedonism, conquest and seduction that stands in stark contrast to the daily lives and modest passions of ordinary people and soldiers going to war. By the end of the opera, each of those characters is judged for their actions.

Within that not particular complex or surprising storyline where, of course, virtue is rewarded, there is nonetheless a wealth of tones, moods, emotions and tempos, and Gounod gathers them together with the all the most wonderful arrangements available to a composer of grand opera. Filled with memorable tunes and famous arias, including Marguerite’s famous Jewel Song, Faust also contains a fabulous waltz, rousing marches, numerous choruses and a ballet – all of which never fail to sweep up the audience and get feet tapping. And if that’s the simple measure by which you judge any performance of Faust, David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera House, with the superb playing of house orchestra under conductor Evelino Pidò, broadcast live in High Definition to cinemas across the UK and the world, was unquestionably a success.

Faust

I’ve never been particularly taken with David McVicar productions, failing to see much in the way of a convincing concept or even a personal touch in his style other than it usually being a hotchpotch of random and generic opera theatrics. That’s the case here with his production of Faust, but it’s a style that works quite well with this particular opera. There might be little to distinguish the all-purpose set, but with a couple of adjustments and a change of lighting it’s able to switch very effectively between a scholar’s study and a church with an organ or between a street-scene and a night-club cabaret. Even the random elements in the wings – the opera house boxes on the left, the pulpit on the right – provide space for nice little touches and coups de théâtre on a stage where there is always something interesting going on. The Act IV Walpurgis Night ballet was undoubtedly one of the high points of the staging, but McVicar’s one little perverse touch in this opera of having Méphistophélès dress as a woman in the scene where he shows Faust the queens of the world actually worked quite well. I would never have thought anyone could get away with putting René Pape in a dress and tiara, but it actually suits the nature of his character here perfectly.

The big selling-point for this particular production however is its top-flight cast that in addition to Pape as Méphistophélès, has Vittorio Grigolo as Faust, Angela Gheorgieu as Marguerite and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Valentin. If none of them are distinguished actors, you really couldn’t fault their singing. Each and every highpoint for their characters was reached and in most cases even surpassed. Grigolo started off slowly as the aging Faust, but more than came into his role as the younger rakish seductor (as he did when I last saw him in last year’s TV production of Rigoletto) while Pape, wearing a string of fine costumes was an appropriately magnetic and imposing presence in his demonic role.

Most impressive however was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who really put a heart and soul into Valentin with an absolutely knock-out, spell-binding performance, but it was also helped by McVicar’s strong direction of his scenes, using the character for additional impact. Surprisingly, it was only the diva Angela Gheorghiu, who really failed to shine. She sang perfectly well, if somewhat underpowered in the role of Marguerite (a consequence perhaps of the cold that saw last Saturday’s live radio broadcast replaced by a recording?), but failed to find the right level to pitch an admittedly difficult character. Sometimes however, it’s difficult to differentiate whether she’s wrapped up in her character or just wrapped up in herself. All in all however, this was a fine production of Gounod’s classic, well up to the exceptionally high standards we’ve come to expect from the Royal Opera House.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Metropolitan Opera, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Robert Carsen, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elana Zaremba | Decca (Universal Classics)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as Russian as they come - from an impeccable literary source (Pushkin), filled with all the classic situations of fatalistic romances, fabulous balls and a duel over a question of honour. The Met’s 2007 production, recorded for their HD-Live series, retains a strong underpinning in the casting and the sensitive conducting of the opera by Valery Gergiev that brings these elements brilliantly to the fore.

Perfectly in line with Tchaikovsky’s original intentions, Robert Carsen’s staging is straightforward and simple, the set uncluttered, with only the bare minimum of props required for the settings, while the all-important tone - primarily an emotional one - is set by the lighting and colouration of the stark backgrounds that tower over and enclose the performers. It gives the opera a truly unique feel, one that is perfectly in tune with the emotional chords struck by the music and the libretto, a tone that is dominated by the interpretation of Onegin here - cold, austere and aloof, calculating even, certainly with a touch of arrogance, but carrying within himself his own torments, distancing himself from others in a remote and self-involved manner that doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into account.

It’s remarkable then how this chimes with Tchaikovsky’s own personal circumstances at the time, unable to bear the gossip surrounding him over his sexuality, entering unadvisedly into a marriage for convenience where he is unable to offer anything more than “brotherly love”. Accordingly the music in Eugene Onegin is often as heartfelt and emotional as anything Tchaikovsky has composed, but with that customary detached, intellectualised translation of it into pure, precise musical terms. Consequently, it’s utterly gripping when converted into the drama of Onegin, involving the heart as much as the mind.

One couldn’t ask for anything more out of the performers - the starkness of the sets allowing the audience to focus solely on the singing without distractions while the lighting supports the emotions and motivations lying behind them. The singers meet the demands of the roles and the action admirably, Dmitri Hrovostovsky indeed presenting a fine cold, aloof figure in Onegin, contrasted with the fiery passions of Ramón Vargas’s Lenski and the romantic purity of Renée Fleming’s Tatiana.

On Blu-ray, the staging looks magnificent in its colouration and tones. The audio is generally fine, but there are a few issues with microphone placements that don’t give adequate presence to the voices, neither in the LPCM 2.0 or the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, though this is only an occasional issue particularly in the first act of the opera. A 16-minute Behind the Scenes featurette presents an interesting look at the rehearsals for the opera. Overall, this is a strong presentation of a magnificent performance of a wonderful opera.