Blythe, Stephanie


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.

RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | James Levine, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König | The Met: Live in HD - May 14, 2011

The second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre, closed the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for a 2010-11 season that had opened with the first of the Met’s new and ambitious Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold. Robert Lepage’s production of the prelude of the epic opera cycle certainly showed a lot of ambition and ingenuity, with a specially designed and constructed piece of twisting, revolving high-tech machinery that would serve as a backdrop and stage over and above the (reinforced) Met stage, but as to whether this Ring cycle would be one of the greats, well, like any staging of the complete work, judgements really need to be reserved until we get to Die Walküre. On the basis of now having two parts of Wagner’s massive work performed (with the remaining two parts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to be staged in the Met’s 2011-12 season), it’s still a little too early to say, but the Lepage production is certainly looking like being a highly memorable new staging of the Ring Cycle.

What was at least already evident from Das Rheingold, beyond the obvious and impressive ingenuity of the morphing huge mechanical structure of “planks”, was the quality of the singing that lent the prelude’s entertaining fairytale of gods, giants and dwarfs with their lust for gold and power a deeper and rather more human quality than the opening part of the story is traditionally accorded. Whether that element would be sustained in Die Walküre was however in little doubt, with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe reprising their roles as Wotan and Fricka and a terrific casting that would see Deborah Voigt in the role of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen at the Royal Opera House as Anna Nicole) playing Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Hans-Peter König as Hunding.

Die Walküre is structured in such a way that all these roles are of vital importance and any one weak link could bring the whole construction down. Act One depends on a strong bond being developed between Siegmund and Sieglinde, two twins, human Wälsung offspring of Wotan, separated at birth who meet and fall in love in an incestuous relationship that is to produce the important figure of Siegfried; Act Two is largely sustained and dramatically driven by the argument between Wotan and Fricka over Wotan’s meddling in human affairs and the threat to the sanctity of marriage that this incestuous relationship represents; Act Three, and really the opera as a whole, relies on the bond that exists between Wotan and Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter and leader of the Valkyrie, a warrior band of sisters whose task it is to lead heroes who have died in battle to Valhalla, who defies the will of her father to tragic consequences.

Walkure

As fine as the singers all are in these roles, Wagner’s Die Walküre presents tremendous vocal challenges that can expose those unused to its demands, so there were nonetheless potential dangers in each of the music-drama’s key relationships. More used to lyrical Italian tenor roles, Jonas Kaufmann however switched to a different register without too much difficulty, while Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I’ve seen do Puccini, Strauss and Turnage, clearly seems to be best suited to being a Wagner soprano, delivered the finest performance I have ever seen from her to date. Stephanie Blythe succeeded in making her Fricke seem more than a bitter shrew in the Second Act, the audience able to sympathise to some extent with her position, short-reaching and motivated by personal jealousy though it is, while Bryn Terfel’s Wotan at the same time did not seem weak in bowing to her demands, but rather fatalistically yielding to the inevitable fate that has been predicted by Erda at the end of Das Rheingold. The conclusion to Act II that brings all the characters together was therefore every bit as effective and doom-laden as it ought to be.

Where Die Walküre stands or falls however is in the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and it was by no means certain that it would work in this production any better than the most recent Bayreuth production (on Blu-ray). Deborah Voigt showed a few wobbles in her earlier Met performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, while Bryn Terfel – as terrific a singer and performer as we all know he is – failed to make a significant impression as Wotan in a Rheingold filled with much stronger Wagnerian voices. The real test of his Wotan however is in Die Walküre. It’s an opera I’ve seen him sing before most powerfully back in 2005 (in concert for the BBC Proms), and if anything his singing here was even better and his interpretation of the role much improved. And that is saying something. Deborah Voigt didn’t have the rich middle register that you’d ideally like to hear in the role of Brünnhilde, but she sang the role superbly and her lighter voice actually worked well in establishing her as an impetuous child torn between pleasing her father and incurring his wrath through an act – intervening in the fate of Siegmund – that she believes is necessary.

Walkure

The relationship between father and daughter is critical in dramatic terms and in human terms for the tragedy that unfolds, and Terfel and Voigt get it right, and not just in the Third Act. Act II establishes the nature of their relationship well, with some playful kidding around and punches to the shoulder that other productions would find difficult to countenance as being the actions of dark, serious immortals. The nature of the relationship changes as the drama progresses, and at every stage the two singers seem to be on the same page, Voigt’s sensitive Brünnhilde supporting the depth of feeling that Terfel draws out of Wotan’s terrible dilemma, truly giving him something to agonise over. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.

Also wonderful is watching the Met’s Ring Machine in operation, transforming fluidly in an instant from the dark and imposing forest of the opera’s stormy Vorspeil to Hunding’s lodge, the synchronised projections creating the necessary textures. It’s not overused either in a way that would dominate over the drama or the singing, blending subtly rather to meets the demands of the narrative and the mood, as it should. I would prefer it however if it was a little more integral to the opera and had some more obvious conceptual meaning. In an interview for ‘Opera News’ Robert Lepage makes interesting observations about Time and about the Ring Cycle being not so much a circle as a series of spiralling events, but it’s difficult to grasp this from watching Das Rheingold and Die Walküre alone. The remaining two instalments will prove whether something is made of that necessary conceptual element that will determine whether this is to be a truly great Ring Cycle or not, but even from a spectacle viewpoint and from the quality of the performances so far – not least with James Levine leading a storming Metropolitan orchestra performance – this is shaping up to be a memorable staging of one of the opera’s greatest achievements.