The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) aired live in cinemas across the country on December 8 as part of the Met's continuing “Live in HD” series. The performance was effective, though not spectacular, and it did showcase a new production that gave a special twist to Verdi's opera classic. The history of the opera's production is a fascinating drama in itself. Verdi wished to set the opera, which he completed in 1859, in the true setting of early 18th century Sweden, around the intrigue that surrounded the assassination of King Gustavus III, but censors, disliking the depiction of a regicide of a European king, forced Verdi and his scenarist to change the setting to early 18th century Boston, where no such intrigues would have been characteristic, yet alone accurate. In subsequent years, however, the setting reverted to Sweden, with the king having his name changed back from Riccardo to the accurate (for Italian) Gustavo. This Met production reverted to the Swedish setting, but the production, directed by David Alden and designed by Paul Steinberg, moved the context of the opera up to the early twentieth century, favoring a largely minimalist set design with fairly plain costuming.
The story of the opera is filled with the recurrent Verdian motifs such as a love triangle between ultimately doomed lovers and political intrigue. Additionally, Verdi used the theme of the metaphysical, ensuring the lover's ultimate demise by placing a curse on them, one he also uses in Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, and La Forza del Destino. (One could argue fairly effectively that all of Verdi's lovers are doomed, but not all of them been cursed formally.) In this case, a fortune teller, Madame Ulrica (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe) places the curse on the head of Gustavo (tenor Marcelo Alvarez), warning him that he will be struck down by a friend, in fact the next man to shake his hand, which turns out to be his most trusted friend, Count Anckarstrom (baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky). Anckarstrom's loyalty is turned when it is revealed that his wife, Amelia (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), is in love with Gustavo, a love that the king reciprocates but does not consummate, as the thought of betrayal is unimaginable to both parties. Anckarstrom's rage blinds him to the truth, however, and he collaborates with conservative nobles who are looking to kill Gustavo and overturn his liberal reforms. At a masked ball in the opera's final scene, Anckarstrom murders the king, but not before the king reveals that Amelia remained faithful to him.
The opera's cast is far from superlative, but it is composed of veteran Verdi performers who bring off the work fairly well. As Gustavo, Marcelo Alvarez's voice is simply not powerful enough to sustain him through one of Verdi's more dramatic tenor roles and he is not able to measure up to the extremely high standard established by his illustrious predecessors in the role. He is dwarfed vocally by his Amelia, Sondra Radvanovsky, whose husky voice gives her great strength. Her characterization is not especially distinctive, but it is the best performance in the cast, and her deep, powerful tone (I was not surprised to find out she started as a mezzo-soprano) reminds me of another great soprano out of the Met's past, Zinka Milanov. As Anckarstrom, Dmitri Hvorostovsky possesses a strong baritone, though not quite the ringing voice associated with great Verdian baritones. This is the case, at least, until the third act, when in his big moment when he decides to betray the king, his voice does reach exceptional heights, suggesting he was keeping his power in reserve until he really needed it. In the role of the fortune teller, Madame Ulrica, Met favorite Stephanie Blythe has an appropriately foreboding tone to suggest that she is capable of portending doom. In the trouser role of Oscar, the king's assistant, Soprano Kathleen Kim possesses effective technique and especially impressive coloratura, but her voice, like her physical frame, is a bit undersized. The Met orchestra supports the singers spectacularly, as I would expect from one of the world's best orchestras, and Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor, moves the score along beautifully, deftly handling the various sections of the opera which are, by turn, rhythmic, dramatic, and intimate.
David Alden's production was ultimately inconsistent in its effectiveness. I liked the design of the sets by Paul Steinberg. Rather than using a conservative setting, placing the opera in ornate royal surroundings, the sets are rather austere, using very little furniture or ornementation at all. Rather, the performers are given adequate space to move and more suggestion comes from their movements than can come from elaborate sets and costumes. Particularly striking is the set used in Act 3, Scene 1, set in Amelia's and Anckarstrom's home, whose angular designs and use of shadows suggest German expressionist cinema. I generally like to see newer, less ornate sets used because it brings the opera forward in time, making the genre less stodgy and helps to break many of the cliches used to characterize opera. Also, fewer visual distractions allow us to concentrate on the music, which is the main attraction. Unfortunately, one aspect of the production that didn't work and did distract from the music was the use of choreographed dance numbers in the first and third acts, which seemed completely superfluous, particularly a balletic movement by Oscar during the first act prelude in which he wears wings and dances in step with the music, which was not intended by the composer and is completely out of place.
The Met's HD transmission of Un Ballo in Maschera will be encored on Wednesday, January 9 at 6:30 PM.