Luisi, Fabio


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.

GotterdammerungRichard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Metropolitan Opera, New York 2012 | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, Hans-Peter König, Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford, Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton | The Met: Live in HD, Feb 11th 2012

The evolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle has been gradual but noticeable through each of the four parts spread across its 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons. Initially in the prologue, Das Rheingold, the spectacle of Robert Lepage’s Machine was clearly an impressive and revolutionary piece of stage technology, but its concept and purpose were not entirely proven. At the very least however, the opening section of the Met’s Ring cycle delighted with a stunning display of powerful singing. Neither the staging nor the singing were entirely consistent across Die Walküre nor Siegfried, but as James Levine’s illness forced him to gave way to Fabio Luisi on the conductor’s podium, a more equitable balance seemed to develop between the production and the performance that played to the strengths of Wagner’s masterwork, even if that meant a little less power in the vocal delivery. If Siegfried held out the promise that Lepage’s vision could end up being a memorable Ring production, that promise was satisfyingly achieved in its epic final evening. With Götterdämmerung, the Met’s Ring has come full circle.

Following on from Siegfried, Fabio Luisi again conducted a Wagner of Romantic sweep over the traditional heavy Germanic declamation, perhaps in favour of two leads who don’t have the full force that is usually demanded for the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. The toning down of the dramatics and tone also worked fittingly with a subtlety in the stage design that belies the sheer weight and imposing presence of the Machine. Like Wagner’s score for Götterdämmerung, the underlying power of the tools at one’s disposal can be a temptation for overstatement, but it can be even more effective if that huge mass of force is suggested and used only sparingly. Clearly both Luisi and Lepage understand that. This is a Ring for the 2010s then, faithful to Wagner’s vision of the power of mythology and of the music drama as the highest expression of human artistic endeavour, taking it to a new level through the modern technology that is at the disposal of an imaginative director.

Gotterdammerung
Lepage’s vision for the production didn’t appear to yield any grand conceptual theme other than how best to make Wagner’s daunting and problematic series of operas work in a modern context without all its accumulated history and tradition. Particularly in the earlier parts, the morphing planks and projections worked mainly on a literal basis to create the imposing presence of Valhalla, an impenetrable forest or a mountain cave housing a dragon, but as the cycle progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards the abstract conceptual. The polymorphous nature of the technology was still well-employed to give solidity to the physicality of the story – the riverside playground of the Rhinemaidens for example actually looking more realistic here than how it was projected during Das Rheingold – but the colours, lighting and abstract patterns elsewhere in Götterdämmerung seemed to be more attuned to mood.

It may seem like making excuses for slightly underpowered performances, but it was actually refreshing to find a Siegfried and a Brünnhilde playing not as mythical god-like figures, but as the human characters they essentially and necessarily are. No excuses however need to be made, even for the fact that both Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt were taking on enormous challenges way beyond anything they have ever done in their careers; on their own terms their performances were exceptionally good and fitting for the production. The chemistry that seemed to be there between them at the end of Siegfried didn’t extend however through to the first act of Götterdämmerung, both seeming a little overwhelmed, the lack of lower depth in both their voices even more noticeable when combined. Voigt however raised her game when paired with the formidable and experienced Wagernian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraude. Their sequence together was simply magnificent. For his part Morris won through from sheer determination and stamina in a severely testing role that demands a concentrated effort for six hours, but he also had a down-to-earth personality and charm that made the final scenes of the opera intimate and touching as well as being epically apocalyptic.

Gotterdammerung

If there were any misgivings about the appropriate Wagnerian tenor of the main roles not quite matching the earlier powerhouse performances of the likes of Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and Jonas Kaufmann, there was again magnificent support here not only from Waltraud Meier, but Wendy Bryn Harmer proved to be a fine Gutrune, Hans-Peter König a formidable Hagen – blankly sinister in acting, but deeply menacing in tone of voice – and there was another impressive turn from Eric Owens who made the brief reappearance of Alberich more than memorable, particularly as his character is a vital link (and leitmotif) that sustains the overarching development and tone of the entire work. Only Iain Paterson failed to make his presence felt either as Gunther, but his weak-willed character was at least dramatically appropriate and fitting, and certainly not a weak element.

I can’t say what the experience would have been like in the theatre, but there was no evidence during the HD-Live broadcast of any noise from the stage equipment, or indeed any of the problematic breakdowns that have been the cause of complaints in some quarters. Everything on the stage flowed smoothly and impressively. On the big screen, Götterdämmerung was as grandly spectacular and as intimately moving as it ought to be, perfectly attuned to the score and the performances. The camerawork – directed a strong visual flair as usual by Gary Halvorson – was also well-judged to pick out the strengths in the performances and the production design, working with it, flowing with the mood of the piece. Although there are a few Ring productions still to come this year and next (the Munich one in particular should be interesting), when eventually viewed together as a full Ring cycle (it will be interesting to see if the first two are revised slightly to suit Luisi’s approach to the work) I think the full impact and consistency of this Met Ring will be better appreciated and it may even be regarded as one of the best of recent times.

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Bardon, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens | The Met: Live in HD - November 5, 2011

I’m sure there are few productions of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen tetrology – the most ambitious and gargantuan production for any opera company to undertake – that are not beset with numerous difficulties and set-backs (even Bayreuth seem to be finding it difficult to engage a director willing to take on such a challenge at the moment), but the Metropolitan Opera in New York certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves with their 2010-12 production. The new technology designed and constructed to meet Robert Lepage’s concept was certainly an ambitious and innovative solution to maintaining the necessary consistency, commonality and fluidity that runs through each of the four Ring operas, but it has had more than its share of teething problems across Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The news that the maestro James Levine’s health problems had forced him to stand down from Met conducting duties this season was also quite a blow to the production. All of this however seems relatively minor in comparison to the challenge of finding a Siegfried to replace the one who has just succumbed to illness only weeks before the opening of the critical third instalment.

Siegfried

Enter tenor Jay Hunter Morris from Paris, Texas to replace the indisposed Gary Lehman, seemingly unfazed by the challenge of stepping into one of the most difficult roles in the entire opera repertoire on one of the biggest stages in the world of opera. A man either with no concept of the notion of fear or one who acts out of blithe innocence for a heroic endeavour, and as such, there can be no more perfect a match for the role of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris fits the bill on this count and in the other areas that matter. He’s not the most lyrical or dramatic heldentenor you will ever hear in the role, but there are few enough Wagnerian tenors in the world that fit that description that are capable of stepping into the role of Siegfried at a few weeks’ notice and Morris sings the role exceptionally well, carrying it off with courage, enthusiasm, stamina and personality, looking every inch a classic Siegfried. He’s certainly capable of slaying this particular dragon and that he does it so confidently is quite an achievement.

An achievement also, I’m happy to say now that we’re fully into the third part, is the gradual evolution of Lepage’s vision of the Ring cycle. Relying entirely on a huge heavy and complex piece of machinery, with no backdrops other than the computer generated images and lighting projected onto it, and little even in the way of props, the Machine was a risky gamble, and yes, it’s had its technical problems along the way. How well it works on a conceptual level is also debatable, but in terms of how it allows consistency, balance and fluidity, tackling complex scene changes, without unnecessary distraction or taking the focus away from the singers, is perfectly judged and balanced. Although undoubtedly difficult and complex to achieve, here in Siegfried it gives the impression of simplicity, managing to morph quickly and impressively from one scene and mood to the next without being overly showy. Less is definitely more when it comes to dealing with Wagner’s blend of myths and concepts – Lepage understands this, Jay Hunter Morris understand this, and so too does Fabio Luisi, taking over capably from Levine and dealing admirably with the challenges that this difficult stage in Wagner’s masterwork presents.

Siegfried

There is however no element and no minor role that doesn’t present challenges for the individual singers and the performers in Siegfried, or for the director and conductor who has to keep a consistency between them and with the other parts of the tetraology. The dwarf Mime can be played and sung with too much comic exaggeration, but Gerhard Siegel has the experience to enter more fully and thoughtfully into the role, and fits in well with the tone already established in the production. There’s a darker impulse and desire lying beneath that chimes with the nature of his brother Alberich, re-evoked here again after Das Rheingold in the gorgeously rich deep tones of Eric Owens. Much of this is just colour to the overall purpose of Siegfried, but it’s vital that it fits in with the richness of the colour that Wagner interweaves into the musical tapestry for the interaction and motivations of main characters. There are perhaps too many echoes and motifs to juggle satisfactorily in this particular opera and not enough depth of plotting to gve it sufficient character of its own – although it’s a work of absolute genius on the part of Wagner to develop and extend this method – and consequently it’s not always done as well as it is managed here.

What helps ground the opera however are the importance of the roles and the performances of the central characters of Wotan, the Wanderer and Brünnhilde. Having grown steadily into the role after a solid but unimpressive Das Rheingold followed by a significantly more commanding Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel’s first Seigfried Wotan is simply wonderful here. His character’s motivations and personal conflicts of interest are difficult to make work dramatically, but if you just take Wotan at his word in song – and this production allows him the space to explore the character deeply that way – then he is an utterly convincing, flawed, tragic character. It’s a great performance. Scarcely less of a challenge dramatically and vocally, Deborah Voigt might not entirely satisfy critics of her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre – weak only in only some areas, I thought – but she rose to the challenge here in Siegfried, her casting fortuitously seeming to work well not only with Terfel’s Wotan in the previous Ring instalment, but complementing well with the humanity in Jay Hunter Morris’ performance.

I’m not sure that the Metropolitan Ring will be ever considered a classic or a revolutionary new look at Wagner’s masterwork, but through good choices in the casting – along with more than a little bit of luck – and through a thoughtful, considered and balanced approach to the score and the production design, those performers are given full range of interpretation and expression, which if it is not revelatory, is at least consistent and of the highest quality. The standard has been set at a high level and the scene is now set for the Twilight of the Gods. Bring on Götterdämmerung.