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A New Production of Verdi's 'A Masked Ball' Live in HD from the Met
It is unlikely, but... it is possible
David Alden has a great reputation in the world of the lyrical theatre and movie in the United States. He has acquainted himself with the feel of Broadway shows. Every time he has the chance, he comes back to lyrical theatre and the classical repertoire, and finds a special joy in it, brought about by reinterpreting well-known subjects in a different manner, adding strong political and social tinges. He is just as keen on... cartoons. Out of the many stagings he has signed, I think it is important to mention a production of Wozzeck by Berg in Los Angeles (1988), the story taking place in wartime Vietnam, overwhelmed with moral corruption, as well as Strauss' Salome in Lithuania (2006), whose story was rewritten for another time, too, this time in the Soviet Union.
David Alden visits Europe in 1976 and studies the compositions of Strehler, Kupfer, Neuenfels and Berghaus. What gives Alden, at least in my opinion, a bit of edge as far as his relating his work to the views of these directors is his great love for music and the caution to never do anything against, but rather, always for the score. This does not prevent him from creating shocking whimsical performances, and this new version of A Masked Ball at the Met Opera is one of them, too. Shocking, but... funny. I was gloomy and confused after seeing Claus Guth's Lohengrin from La Scala, wondering: were all those horrible details and absurd situations really necessary? After seeing David Alden's A Masked Ball, I was cheerful and serene, thinking sure, why not, it is unlikely, but... it is possible.
For the opera that I am reviewing, David Alden created a cinematic development of the plot in the seemingly confined space of... three walls - the fourth should have been the one facing the audience - where he created a plausible version of the score whose story about a famous political event in the 18th century, the killing of a crowned head, sets it at the beginning of the 20th century (costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel). The rising action is strongly dramatic, which gives a lot of options both to Verdi and to those who stage his opera. The tragedy peppered with politics and love takes place in a single room, the one where king Gustavo (Riccardo) receives his guests. There is only one element of the setting that always stays on the stage - a huge comfortable leather armchair: in this armchair, Gustavo dreams of his beloved yet intangible Amelia; in this armchair, dressed in fisherman, the king hides in Ulrika's cave/room and watches, without being seen, the witch meeting the woman he loves; in the same armchair, Amelia rests and gathers her strength before walking on the hanged people's field, looking for the healing weed, and, eventually, Gustavo dies in the same armchair.
The illusion of a single room always the same and yet always different, stays until the end of the show. However, the three walls are continuously moved, creating spaces of various strange shapes. The ceiling has an essential role in the setting, as it is inclined to the most unusual angles, as well. It is painted with a huge scene in which Icarus can be seen collapsing after his wax wings had melted as he had been flying too close to the sun. The director uses the metaphor to turn the king into a young man who has enjoyed money and power too much, who has lived a life of pleasure and abused it, which, like with Icarus, made him fall and then die. In David Alden's view, Gustavo the king (Riccardo) resembles another character in Verdi's operas, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto - he is merry, carefree, he sings, dances, laughs and loves profusely. His only serious moment occurs when he meets Amelia in the gallows scene and, when they admit to their guilty feelings, the ceiling with Icarus' image rises and hovers a little over them, and, for a few minutes they are alone in the midst of nature, which we perceive as endless and enclosing, at the same time. The illusion of this freedom will not last too long and, when the conspirers arrive, the ceiling returns and tilts to a threatening angle, touching the floor in an acute angle that demarcates a tiny mean space which leaves no escape to anyone.
I mentioned the humour of the staging. Here are a few examples - when Ulrika is talked about and the king is asked to cast out the witch, the stage fills with dozens of desks, bored clerks working at them, stamping papers and taking them from one side to another, with standard movements that lack any feeling; when Amelia is discovered, the conspirers laugh and take out small binoculars from their pockets, to watch the tragedy that unravels in front of them, as if they were at the theatre or at the opera. They, too, are completely detached. I could give more examples, as David Alden stays true to his wish to use a perfectly identifiable moral, social and political note for every moment and every situation in the opera.
Cast with famous names, but… tired voices
Marcelo Álvarez, in the role of the king, is still a strong dramatic tenor, less credible in his acting because of a continuous fake cheerfulness that neither himself, nor the audience believes in. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky played a rather too dramatic-tragic Amelia, having some problems with her voice but managing to hide them thanks to her experience and cleverness. I found Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Renato's role less glamorous than usual, but with the same unmistakable black velvet tone colour and the same imposing stage presence that we were used to. Stephanie Blythe played Ulrika with certain asperities due to the difficulty in going from a range to another. I appreciated the agility and the clear sound that soprano Kathleene Kim used when playing Oscar. The good choral ensemble, the orchestra conducted by Fabio Luisi that seemed to lack glamour and personality - or perhaps I was too captivated by what I was seeing, and I may be to blame for that, as I mostly focused on the stage, ignoring the orchestra pit.
In conclusion, the Met's Masked Ball - which automatically requires a certain artistic level that no one can go below - was not a very special event in the world of lyrical theatre.
Translated by Irina Borțoi and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, Bucharest University