Zaremba, Elena


MascheraGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008 | Jesús López Cobos, Mario Martone, Marcelo Álvarez, Violeta Urmana, Marco Vratogna, Elena Zaremba, Allessandra Marianelli | Opus Arte

I’m always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. They certainly have the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what’s a Verdi opera without an exclamation of “Vendetta!” somewhere in it?), rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What they lack in sophistication – certainly when compared to later Verdi – they make up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment that are the principal reasons why Verdi’s most famous operas (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto) remain popular favourites.

Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Melodrama in 3 Acts”) has all the above criteria in spades. It’s far from sophisticated, it has a revolutionary plot combined with an illicit romantic love and doomed relationships and it has some terrific singing roles for the performers to show their range. It’s the kind of storyline that is laughably ridiculous and wouldn’t work convincingly anywhere outside of an opera stage. But it is an opera, and if it works there (although not everyone will think it does) it’s because Verdi’s propulsive score carries you through the weaknesses with such memorable tunes that you are swept along (humming to yourself) rather than trying to assess the credibility of the drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, the libretto written by Antonio Somma, based on a work by Eugène Scribe. Un Ballo in Maschera was indeed originally composed as Gustavo III, but the opera was banned by the authorities while it was in rehearsals in Naples in 1858 after the attempted assasination of Napoleon III , as the opera contained a conspiracy plot.  The opera was reworked for Rome with the setting changed to America where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick, is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts. His rule is not universally accepted and there is consequently plots brewing for deaths that have occurred under his governance, but Riccardo refuses to let such rumours restrict his movements or his social gatherings. When papers are delivered to him to have a fortune-teller Ulrica banished from the state, Riccardo, out of curiosity, dons a disguise and takes his guests to see her. She also foresees death for Riccardo, and at the hands of a close friend.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato’s wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. “Heavens, my husband!”, exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed (“Vendetta!”) at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? “Death!”, of course.

Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it’s firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It’s hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that’s what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There’s no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that’s certainly the case here.

This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks – LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 – are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.

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.