Mario Hamlet-Metz

Metropoliten Opera: Verdi and Berlioz

Photo Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

After an absence of over thirty years, the producer David Alden returned to the Metropolitan Opera, in charge of mounting a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the first of two new productions of operas by this composer (Rigoletto is still to come) in the season of the bicentennial of his birth. (There will be a total of seven Verdi operas this season.) Alden sets the action in Stockholm in the 1920s twenties and stresses the abundance of “chiaroscuro” of which both the libretto and the score are filled: humor vs. irony; frivolity vs. real risks; loyalty vs. betrayal; love vs hatred; love vs. duty. The producer, who has worked in Germany extensively, seems to have assimilated the far-fetched interpretations of the words and music. Alden based his directorial concept drawing an arbitrary and arguable parallel between the mythological Icarus and King Gustavus. I say arguable because, although both characters are reckless, the mythological unconsciously one pushes his recklessness too far and falls to his death while the Swedish King, realizing that he has made a tragic mistake, ultimately surrenders to “onore e dovere” (honor and duty), and dies unfairly slain by his best vengeful ex best friend, holding in his hand the document that will separate him forever from his beloved Amelia and swearing to her husband that he wanted her purity untouched (“illeso il suo candor”). But there were other things in the production that were troublesome too. A leather armchair (throne?) was brought onstage during the overture and was seen in almost every scene, including the Gallows Scene (Act III). Gustavus sat on it, fell asleep and woke up nervously, as if coming out of a nightmare. Does this mean that the whole opera is seen as a nightmare of the King? Maybe, but it isn’t clear. Then, there was a winged Oscar, smoking and wearing a goatee, also onstage during the overture and struggled to get rid of his wings at the same moment the King is waking up, signifying another facet of the nightmare. At the entrance of the Judge, the palace’s great hall becomes an office where busy bureauocrats simulated typing while moving like zombies. When they decide to go visit Ulrica, the scene ends like a Broadway musical, with the King and his entire Court sort of tap-dancing, top-hat and cane in hand. During Ulrica’s scene, the Swedish woman who came to consult her wisdom behaved like drug addicts, convulsing and contortioning their slim bodies, standing or lying on the floor. Then, the King enter, dressed as a sailor but his entourage is dressed in raincoats and hats, all alike, which makes their supposed “incognito” status impossible. When the generosity of the King is acknowledged at the end of that scene, he changes his outfit and wears crown and cape while a puppet, dressed just like him, is lifted and taken to the back of the stage. During the Ball scene, several black-winged figures were lurking the party and reminded us of Ruy Gomez de Silva in the last act of Ernani. It all really gave the impression of a tragicomic nightmarish; almost Kafkian setting that became alive in the shape and form of a “film noir”. The sets in which the characters moved was brilliantly created by Paul Steinberg and were in perfect tune with the claustrophobic, ghostly atmosphere that the producer had in mind. A hug painting representing Cirrus falling dominated the stage and served to created, in several positions, a closed, oblique space. Rarely did this painting let us breathe. In Anckersrom’s home, it absent and replaced by a unique decorative element, the portrait of the King, which was sadistically treated by Count Horn during the scene where the King’s death was planned. For the finale of the opera, Steinberg designed two big mirrored walls on the side and at the back, a French-style palace. Steinberg also designed the elegant costumes, which for the Ball were all black and white, causing a great effect. All in all, the sow was somewhat controversial from the standpoint of the staging but visually quite attractive.

After two previous incursions in heavy Verdi territory (Radames and Manrico), Marcelo Alvarez added the role of King Gustav to his repertory in this theater. His portrayal of the character was, as usual, very convincing and his preparation was meticulous. Alvarez is a visceral rather than cerebral singer and that is important in Verdi. His problems came however with his lack of “mezze tinte” and his inability to soften the sound, which is indispensable in the interpretation of the different states of mind of the King. What we heard when he tried to soften was just a less “forte” sound. On the other hand, the high notes were solid and brilliant and focused, which, of course, the audience loved…Singing her first Amelia here, Sandra Radvanovsky did what she was supposed to do, and even better. Her voice was full and robust, her technique was admirable, her singing noble and elegant, her phrasing subtle and expressive. And she knows hot to engage the audience too!

So does her frequent companion in the Verdi operas, the baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky, who sang an accomplished performance. Indeed, he was fully concentrated, paid close attention to the text and was vocally impeccable. This is a good opera for him, as it lies well within the range of his voice. His rendition of a very heart-felt “Ere too” won him a big ovation. The biggest ovation, though, was given to Stephaney Blythe, the Ulrica. The tessitura of this role falls in the richest, fullest and most resounding section of Ms Blythe’s exuberant, healthy mezzo soprano and knowingly, she takes full advantage of it. With no vocal problems at hand, she seemed to have much fun with the exploits of the fortune-teller. As Oscar, the petite Kathleen Kim looked a bit laughable with goatee and wings but she sang with enthusiasm and precise agility. Other members of the cast were David Crawford and Keith Miller, the pair of mean-looking and acting conspirators, Mark Showalter, the intolerant Judge, Trevor Scheunemann, the grateful sailor, and Scott Scully, Amelia’s handy servant. On the podium, Fabio Luisi conducted with a firm hand, showing less indulgence than in other performances maybe because on this occasion the singers really didn’t have any noticeable weaknesses and didn’t restrain him in his insightful reading of the score.

Hector Berlioz worshipped classical civilization and, at the same time, worshipped the music of Gluck. It is only natural then that he found in Virgil’s Aeneid an ideal subject for his personal taste and artistic sensitivity. A visionary, futuristic composer who based his ideas in the musical patrimony of the past, Berlioz succeeded in The Troyens in assimilating the aesthetics of ancient poetry with modern romanticism, using a mythological theme which he set to music with harmonies, melodies and an orchestration that were new, indeed, revolutionary for his times, not to mention the perfect integration of music and dance, which brought the theatrical concepts of his master Gluck to new, much bigger dimensions. Out of this creative amalgam resulted an opera that was physically and artistically monumental and most difficult to stage and perform. In fact, Berlioz himself never saw his masterpiece performed in complete form. This only happened in the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the good efforts of Colin Davis, who contributed much to the recognition and appreciation of the French composer.

The Met decided to let go of the masthodontic Peter Wexler production that had served to introduce The Troyens to this theater in 1973 and that was used again for the centennial season in 1983, and replace it twenty years later by the grandiose but less ambitious production created by Maria Bjornson(sets) and Francesca Zambello (producer), unveiled during the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. It is this same production that is being shown this season.

This was maestro Fabio Luisi’s fourth performance in a week, a real tour de force. On opening night (December 13), a few weaknesses in his baton could be detected, and they had to do with entrances of soloists and chorus. In the first two acts (Troy) in the narration of Cassandra’s tragic predictions, we also noticed some hesitations, discrepancies in the communication between pit and stage, especially during Cassandra’s imprecations. In general terms, maestro Luisi seemed to transmit better the lyric passages be it in the purely orchestral ones for the dances (magnificently choreographed by Doug Varone) or in those highly romantic ones that describe softly and erotically the placid nocturnal atmosphere, so propitious to love. The entire fourth act, from the initial Hunt and Storm scene to the marvelous love duet at the end, was definitely the most accomplished both from the orchestral and vocal standpoints. The sets, for the entire opera, consisted of two levels. On the higher one, a big open semicircular open structure that could be filled with various elements that illustrated the atmosphere and dramatic situations, present and to come: a Pantheon-like cupola, wheat fields, and a sail. In the two acts of the besieged Troy, dark, gloomy colors dominated, with side metallic walls that reminded us of recycled battle remains. On the ground level, where so many people had to move, only a ramp could be seen while, in Carthage, some shiny objects illustrated the richness and prosperity of the city ruled by the beautiful and beloved Dido, who lived in an ample and luminous palace. The enormous destroyed wooden Trojan horse looked much like the objects that formed the pyre where Dido is going to take her own life. (It’s all about doom.) Two of the ballet scenes are worthy of mention: the one simulating the death of Laccoon and the one where two dancers performed suspended in the air, simulating the love of Dido and Aeneas.

These enormous open spaces on an enormous stage require, of course, voices with much body, volume and consistency. Deborah Voigt was Cassandra when the production opened in 2003, and she repeated her performance now, with more or less the same results. In the more intimate, pensive moments, her instrument sounded a bit “meager” and colorless, with low notes that were hard to hear. On the other hand, when she stepped forward towards the proscenium and lashed out at the fellow Trojans or when she tried to persuade Aeneas to leave, the voice recovered its usual shine in the upper register and the singing became expressive and pointed.

The best performance of the evening came undoubtedly from Susan Graham, the Dido. This singer, who already became unforgettable as Iphigenia proved once again that nowadays she has few rivals in the French repertory. Her singing went ever so smoothly and naturalness from authoritarian to passionate, to furious, to resigned once she had decided to die, revealing a total and profound understanding of text and music. Miss Graham is also a perfectionist, one who seems to have learned well from the early criticisms regarding her apparent onstage passiveness. Now, her acting seemed spontaneous, natural and involved, in moments of intimacy and in those where she interacted with others (sister, subjects, lover), always feminine and attentive, at times rigorous, at other times vulnerable.

Personally, I have always admired the tenor Marcello Giordani for his seriousness, his musicianship and his desire to expand his repertory. It has paid off well for this singer at the Met, because just this season, he has three major roles to sing: Calaf, Paolo in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and Aeneas. But, alas, time passes for all of us. At this point of his distinguished career, the choice of the long and heavy role of Aeneas may have proven a bit of an unnecessary risk. His high notes, taken individually, kept their usual brightness but his tenor, by nature, has never been a heroic one nor has it had the body necessary for a part that really requires a Wagnerian Heldentenor. In the pages that required strength or sustained phrasing his efforts were frankly insufficient. His best moment came during the romantic duet with Dido, where both voices blended in beautiful, soave singing. His long scene in Act V found him vocally tired and unfocused.

The cast is too huge for us to mention everyone. Let’s just say that the Anna of Karen Cargill (Dido’s sister) was superb and that the Coroebus of Dwayne Croft, the Narbal of Kwanngehul Youn and the Iopas of Eric Cutler were also laudable.