Cher Public

The man behind the mask

Recently your doyenne engaged in an email-based interview with David Alden, director of the Met’s new production of Un ballo in maschera, opening on Thursday. Unusually for your doyenne, she did almost none of the talking—or, in this case, typing—because Alden is very nearly as good a raconteur as he is a regisseur. My feeble questions and his epic answers follow the jump.

La Cieca: To begin, the “boxers or briefs” question”—Boston or Stockholm, and why?

David Alden: As seductive as the idea of directing a Verdi opera about Colonial Boston feels (Ulrica the outlawed black fortune-teller, the clash between the effete British ruler Richard, Earl of Warwick and his American subjects, Renato his “Creole” secretary etc.) let’s face it—this American location was chosen almost at random by Verdi to deal with the Italian censor’s banning the depiction of the assasination of a European royal figure. The sound of the musical score is the always the decisive factor in an opera, and Verdi’s score is 100% sparkling European in flavour—the court of Gustavo is a mini-Versailles, elegant and full of sophisticated intrigue—Auber’s Le bal masqué was the previous famous opera on the historical subject of the assassination of Gustavus at Drottningholm and Verdi’s score takes Auber’s French flavour as an inspiration. So Sweden it must be—but our production will not be a historical re-creation of the late eighteenth-century Swedish court. Rather, the cool and repressed Nordic environment (echoes of Bergman and Strindberg) will be evoked.

LC: The Met’s PR materials describe your approach to Ballo as “dreamlike.” Can you expand on that? What about this work (as opposed to, say, Aïda or Trovatore) suggests a dreamlike approach?

DA: I think this is Verdi’s brilliant and despairing existential riff on human existence—his Gustavo is a dreamer and a fantasist—a king who wants to escape his duties, who initiates an affair with the wife of his staunchest defender almost to create his own assassin (Christ and Judas?)—a king who laughingly (how many kinds of laughter there are in this piece, ranging from light to diabolical to desperate) plots his own death step by step. Of course all operas are dreams (the tension and synergy between words, which are rational and precise, and music, which is subjective and mysterious). But Ballo (along with Boccanegra) are the two clearly experimental dream pieces in Verdi’s output.

LC: Your cast for Ballo includes Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who’s well known as a singing actor, and Marcelo Alvarez, who is best known as a “singer”. Is there a different approach in working with artists who have a native flair for acting and those who don’t so much?

DA: I am excited to meet this starry cast—I have never worked with any of them before (actually I worked with Dolora Zajick once decades ago in San Francisco when she was beginning in the Merola program but it was several lifetimes ago). Of course I have seen them all perform countless times around the globe. In rehearsal I try to create an atmosphere of collaboration, discussion and experiment—I am very well-prepared and sure of where I am going (usually) but with such a cast I hope I can throw all my notes away, improvise, and take as much from them as I put in. You would be surprised how often I work with a singer who has a reputation for being stubborn or not an actor and draw them into my world and get something fluid, intense, or unexpected—this I consider my job. These people are thoroughbreds who can function on a very high level! but you have to be at the top of your game and a step or two ahead of them.

LC: A corollary of sorts: when you signed on to this production, Karita Mattila was Amelia; now the role has been passed on to Sondra Radvanovsky. How will this major change of cast affect your approach to the work? Do you think the production will vary from your original conception to fit her personality, or do you expect her to fit into the concept?

DA: Of course Sondra is completely different from Karita and the production will be very different with her as Amelia—we have already adjusted the costume designs for her and I will enter rehearsals open and ready to change everything based on her energy, her voice, her physicality. If Kim Novak had pulled out of Vertigo and, I don’t know… Vivien Leigh had played the part, it would be a very different film.

LC: A general question about the work: to me it feels different in so many ways from what we think of as stereotypically Verdi. Can you comment on what makes Ballo unusual or unique among Verdi’s oeuvre?

DA: This opera is unlike any other Verdi creation—the bizarre combination of serious political material, high Italian melodrama based around the hackneyed stuff of marital infidelity, and an almost operetta-like lightness of being, is experimental and dislocated and sets this apart from his other masterpieces.

Ballo Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera.

  • eric

    Signora Cieca: Thanks for the interesting interview.

    I’m curious how an email interview takes place. Do you submit a list of questions in a single email and he responds to all of them? Or is there some sort of back-and-forth interaction?

  • grimoaldo

    Haha, love the picture of Stewart with Leigh as “Madeleine”!
    Much as I adore Leigh, no one could have played Madeleine / Judy as well as Novak in my opinion since she was giving, as the British Halliwell’s film Companion used to say, “not so much a performance as a helpless impersonation of herself” to uniquely haunting effect.
    Best wishes to Mr Alden and the Met for this new production of one of my top fav operas -- but I am not sanguine about the ability of Alvarez in the greatest tenor role in the Italian rep to bring out the contrast, the light and dark, the laughter, the operetta quality of elements in the piece, since I saw him do the part with Mattila and Hampson in London eight years ago, and he was merely a stout man standing there singing the music in a monochromatic way. Yes, the King / Riccardo does wear a variety of masks but with Alvarez there were no masks, no man really, just a podgy tenor struggling to sing the music with a few good phrases and top notes every now and then.
    Act Three Scene One with this cast is something I am very much looking forward to hearing and / or seeing though.

    • Clita del Toro

      Ballo is also one of my top three Verdi favorites, and I think Alvarez may be a problem. Too bad for us.

      • I think that my main problem with Alvarez is the singing. I find it whinny and pushed. In my review of the Met Tosca I though his acting was both incredibly detailed in parts and generalized in others, but overall, credible.

        Alvarez is not a lady person, I am sure he will work really hard to make the character believable within the limits of his ideas and skill. He is obviously capable as whiteness by the incredibly moving “o dolci mani” in the Tosca. I just can’t get over the singing.

        • grimoaldo

          Yes, Pavarotti was not exactly a good actor but at least in the singing, in his voice, he found the contrasts between heroism and fun, light and dark, laughter and tears, that are present in the part of the King / Riccardo whereas Alvarez did not at all, so my main problem with Alvarez is the singing too.
          It would be nice to be proved wrong and that he will be transformed in the new production.

        • I heard Alvarez sing an absolutely beautiful Edgardo opposite RAS at the Met around 10 years ago. Then, as he moved into heavier repertoire, he still displayed some fine singing (I’m thinking of his first Met Manrico broadcast). But over the last few years, his voice has sounded more and more worn. I’m not saying the voice is gone but it’s on a downward trajectory. I predict an uneven performance.

          • Often admonished

            Yes, once upon a time ….

      • parpignol

        Trovatore was about 3 years ago with exactly the same cast--Radvanovsky,Hvorostovsky,Zajick, Alvarez-- and Alvarez was not a weak link then, rose to the occasion, helped make the whole performance work, and I would optimistically predict that he’ll come through again. . .

    • phoenix

      ‘… love the picture of Stewart with Leigh as “Madeleine”!’
      -- I agree with you grim -- this picture is about the only part of this interview that I enjoyed.
      -- In defense of using the original Stockholm setting, Alden says: ‘… Verdi’s score is 100% sparkling European in flavour …’ I would like to know exactly which Verdi is not ‘100% European in flavour’ -- how about Aida?
      -- I have never seen a Ballo set in ‘Colonial Boston … (Ulrica the outlawed black fortune-teller, the clash between the effete British ruler Richard, Earl of Warwick and his American subjects, Renato his “Creole” secretary’ -- now all of this sounds like downhome stuff I can identify with and certainly enjoy watching -- rather than just another …’ mini-Versailles, elegant and full of sophisticated intrigue …’ -- Bah! dull, dull, dull!

      • I think Verdi takes very special care with Aida to make the atmosphere exotic, even (per Budden) using “an invented Phrygian mode… with an augmented interval between the second and third degree” in the temple music. In other words, Verdi made Aida sound as non-European as he dared.

        In a letter discussing the possible changes of setting for Ballo Verdi did say that Gustavo’s court needed a “whiff of Versailles,” which is to say he thought that the elegance and polish of a sophisticated European court was important to the meaning of the piece. He rejected settings in eastern Europe and during the middle ages. The colonial Boston venue was obviously a compromise based on a cursory knowledge of that era; the assumption apparently was that Riccardo’s Boston would reflect the gaiety of the court of Charles II.

        I do think there are some important losses when the now-usual “Swedish” setting is imposed. For example, it makes no sense for the King of Sweden to lament

        Ah, sì, Renato
        Rivedrà la sua patria . . . e la sua sposa
        Lo seguirà Senza un addio, l’immenso
        Mar ne sepàari

        Where is Renato supposed to be from, and what is this “immense sea” he has to cross to return there?

        But the biggest loss from this change I think is in Riccardo/Gustavo’s last words

        Addio per sempre, o figli miei per sempre
        Addio—diletta America

        I think it is particularly moving for the dying man to bid farewell to his adopted country, the land he has come to love, instead of the overly familiar trope of saying goodbye to the land of his birth.

        On the other hand, I can see how a stage director would hesitate to create a purely fantasy version of American history for an American opera house, given that there are still rubes out there who guffaw at the “Louisiana desert” in Manon Lescaut.

        • MontyNostry

          I’ve always thought Ballo could work well in a British Colonial setting like India or the Caribbean, though one would need to be sensitive to political correctness.

        • I just never cared for the sound of “Gustavo” vs “Riccardo”. I wish my reasons were more sophisticated.

        • phoenix

          Thanks for your thoughts on this. I no longer seek literal representation of the setting of work -- either in time nor place. IMO Boston, at any time in it’s history, is more interesting to me than Stockholm. You mention patriotism -- I like Renato’s patriotic themes, but not Gustav’s.
          -- Temple of Phah scene in Aida is rather short -- was this scene supposed to define the musical ‘flavour’ of the entire opera? I don’t really know the history of the compositon of Aida. Much of the opera sounds quite traditionally european-militant to me -- a notable exception being Aida’s non-traditional free-style almost conversational verismistic arias, which stand out from the rest of score. Also, with the exception of the great choral scenes, large sections of this opera seem to be deliberately devoid of extensive harmonic contrapuntal development -- no matter, of course IMO Aida is a great masterpiece, far more satisfying both musically & dramatically than Ballo.
          -- The ‘Louisiana desert’ did exist in the days of Manon Lescaut -- the high desert in the western part of Texas & Oklahoma, southeastern Colorado and the northeastern border of New Mexico:

          • Clita del Toro

            I love both Ballo and Aida. Both are masterpieces. I would take either over Don Carlo any day. I know that’s a blasphemous statement. Just my personal taste. I never tire of either opera as I do with Trovatore, Rigoletto, and even Traviata.
            But I still adore Macbeth, Nabucco and Simon. And I would love to hear a fabulous Forza--it’s been so many years, boohoo :+(

  • donmagnifico

    “I think this is Verdi’s brilliant and despairing existential riff on human existence—his Gustavo is a dreamer and a fantasist”

    Really? Then why does Gustavo decide in the last act to give up his passion, do the right thing and send Amelia and Renato away? He is then (and that’s the tragedy) killed while telling Amelia goodbye. He then pardons and forgives his assassins, which so moves them that they join in with the people in praising his noble heart. For all his frivolity and lack of caution he ends up sacrificing and it takes his life. There are things more important, and he know it because he loves. (Like a the male version of Traviata). If it was “despairing” he would have just got rid of Renato taken Amelia, and disposed of his enemies, (which he could easily do, being the king), instead of giving Renato and his enemies every chance.
    There is nothing despairing in any Verdi opera (existential, yes). They are all beautiful reflections on the human condition and the desire for happiness and love, the incredible, sublime music reveals no despair.

    This is yet another example of, what Aristotle referred to as “reading your own bulls**t into something.”

    • Really? Then why does Gustavo decide in the last act to give up his passion, do the right thing and send Amelia and Renato away?

      Because the character develops? That is to say, Gustavo is at first “a dreamer and a fantasist” and then, seeing the hideous consequences of his selfish actions (i.e., the humiliation of Amelia and Renato) he matures and grows into the “nobility” his subjects praise.

      Or, depending on how you look at it, the turning point in Gustavo’s character could be the moment when Amelia cries “T’amo.” Once he knows he is loved and that Amelia accepts his love, he assumes the responsibility for her safety and welfare.

      The point is that there is a point at which Gustavo ceases to be merely “a fantasist and a dreamer” and becomes capable of heroic action. A dramatic action based on drastic change of character (so long as that change is motivated) is stronger than one in which the character simply acts out the salient trait of his personality we have seen from the beginning of the piece.

      Alden is speaking in rather general terms and to be sure the meaning of an opera staging (like the “meaning” of music) is not always easy to explicate in words.

  • Hippolyte

    I must have missed when Hvorostovsky became known as a “singing actor.” Admittedly he’s better on stage than Alvarez but I generally find DH pretty limited as an actor; in fact, his Boccanegra was one of the worst acted performances I’ve seen at the Met in recent years.

  • Belfagor

    I remember his 1989 production of this piece at English National Opera -- it was wild, infuriating, non-linear, visually extraordinary and I remember it vividly, whereas so much since then I have forgotten. There was a brilliant lunacy, a wildness to it all that struck at the heart of what makes one think constitutes opera -- an acting out of the outsize emotional spectrum that potent music brings to theatre. I do remember the live radio broadcast -- with the three massive diminished 7th chords that open Ulrica’s scene.


    Voice from stalls: BLOODY RUBBISH


    Voice from the gods: Well some of us are enjoying it so SHUT THE FUCK UP


    Exciting that opera could garner such reactions. There was a fist fight on the pavement outside ENO after the first night of his ‘Mazeppa’, another ferally brilliant rendering that took no prisoners. Really intrigued to see his revisiting of the piece, and see if the Met audience will cope, or if they’ll pick up their skirts and run……

    • armerjacquino

      I remember listening to that broadcast too, but my main memory of it is of poor old Janice Cairns- who could be a very exciting singer on her day- coming to spectacular grief at the climax of ‘Ma dall’arido stela divulsa’. It came out as ‘Miserere d’un povero cor*/ Ah-ah-ah UNGH’ as the top note just collapsed into the back of her throat.

      To be fair, I do remember her immediately recovering to give a corking account of ‘Teco io Sto’* with Arthur Davies.

      *yes, I know. I can’t remember the translations, is all.

      • Belfagor

        Well ENO was often a bit over-parted when it came to putting on central Italian rep. Mind you, I’ve heard many celebrated Amelia’s in international houses come to grief, or reveal extreme strain on that phrase.

    • Porgy Amor

      I doubt there will be any fistfights, and I won’t get my hopes up for any feral brilliance. For the Met, Alden will be on best behavior, as many before him have been. Giancarlo del Monaco is not a director I particularly admire, but those picture-book extravaganzas he gave Volope in the 1990s are not as bold as what he was doing in Europe at the time. Robert Carsen’s ONEGIN was controversial when new, but even so, it was Carsen in his conservative minimalist mode (as with CARMELITES); it was not the Carsen of TOSCA, TANNHAEUSER, and DON GIOVANNI. I’d hardly have guessed from watching David McVicar’s ANNA BOLENA that this was the work of someone who had a history of provoking and surprising. It was scarcely more interventionist than the stand-and-sing affair in which Netrebko had already starred in Vienna.

      It (Alden’s Met BALLO) might be good or bad, well received or poorly received, but what passes for Regietheater at the Met is a training-wheels version at best. Even that Bondy TOSCA (which I hated…but not for the reasons it was booed) was middle of the road. I’ll be fascinated to see what Tcherniakov attempts and is allowed to do, when his turn comes ’round, because I’m not sure he’s *capable* of playing it safe. But they’re starting him off with something a lot of Met-goers will never have seen in the first place (PRINCE IGOR).

      • I think this is right on the money.

      • MontyNostry

        Well, there’s not much of a narrative anyway in Prince Igor — it’s more a series of discrete tableaux with some glorious, and sometimes very moving music. Perfect stuff for some kind of reinterpretation!

  • Interesting observations about Ballo. We’re in the midst of an Alden season in Toronto. Chris Alden’s new (and fabulous) Fledermaus just wrapped up, with his Clemenza coming in February. And David Alden’s Lucia is coming in the Spring. (We’re also getting Robert Carsen’s Dialogues and Atom Egoyan’s Salome — a good season for directors).

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Make it go away!

  • oedipe

    Of course all operas are dreams (the tension and synergy between words, which are rational and precise, and music, which is subjective and mysterious).

    I beg to differ with Mr. Alden here. If words (language) were rational and precise, we would have only one way of expressing an idea, we would not have so much trouble making ourselves understood, there wouldn’t be so many linguists and logicians trying (and failing, to a large extent) to explain language phenomena and -last but not least- we wouldn’t get ridiculous results with Google translate, even when translating simple sentences.

    No, I think the difference between language and music lies elsewhere: because of the nature of its signs, language is more intermediated, less direct, more discrete than music. It is similar to the difference between digital and analog.

    • SF Guy

      The idea that words are rational and precise, especially in a theatrical context, would certainly be news to Shakespeare and David Mamet. However, I think Alden is thinking specifically about opera, where the libretto usually gives you straightforward statements, the orchestra gives you the subtext, and the vocal line is up for grabs.

  • It is all shit. The sets, the singing, the acting, the costumes. I have never seen such tripe in my life. Verdi is rolling in his grave so much that he could be used as a generator with enough power to restore power to manhattan and lower energy costs for the entire state. Ballo will never be seen the same and there’s nothing the met can co to make us like this assault o the eyes they are inflicting on us.

    There, I reviewed unseen. Now we can go back to talking Netrebko and Lady Macbeth.

    On other news, does anyone know if Statyagraha will be released on DVD? I just downloaded a performance and are reliving how much I liked the production. I’m hoping it will be released, but concrete information would be appreciated.

    • Belfagor

      Double standards here Lindoro: that production of Satyagraha was very ‘regie’ and non-literal compared to the first production. Glass is still alive, and presumably didn’t roll (or kick) around too much.

      And what bloody bollocks: ‘Ballo will never be the same’. Knickers! It’s a tribute to these inexhaustible works that they survive, or prevail under, or emerge newly minted under any number of interpretations.

      • Someten dones not know the meningitis of satire

        • SF Guy

          And here I thought it was irony--silly me.

          BTW, it was reassuring earlier to hear that Alvarez is not a lady person.

          • Yes, autocorrect is having a field day today.

          • SF Guy

            It’s clear that Spellcheck is now capable of satirizing itself. I can’t wait to see what it’s cooking up for April Fools.

          • La Cieca should hold a special chat. Or perhaps a contest for the best autocorrect opera review.

            Her savaging leggos and pernicious frittata male her a dangling Lucky

          • Nerva Nelli

            Although King Gustav was *quite* the lady person, one understands.

          • SF Guy

            So I’ve heard. But I just don’t see red pumps being a good look for Marcelo.

          • Porgy Amor

            If there’s going to be a best autocorrect opera review, we have to have a best auto-*translated* opera review. It will be hard to better the one of “crazed hornet Angela Meade” making her role debut in VESPRI. Lyrical iron, but less so. Her pianissimos were little more than irritating flicker. The audience celebrated nonetheless, probably because of their courage, combative attitude.

          • I don’t know whether this counts as autocorrect, but I did see a troupe in residence in the theater of an Asian country’s major national monument offering to the public, in oversize letters, PECKING OPERA.

  • rogwood

    For the record: King Gustav was shot at the Opera House in Stockholm, not at Drottningholm.

  • amoebaguy

    Some dolls can fly!

    From the Pelly production headed for Barcelona’s Liceu and the San
    Francisco Opera

  • manou

    The Met has now posted three video clips of the forthcoming Ballo:

    The first seems to show that Kim has been replaced by Hervé Lachaize fron Fantasy Island.

    (Alvarez balla!!)

    • louannd

      Is that a GIANT glove in the “Eri tu” clip? I am going to love this show.

      • louannd

        Maybe it’s the alligator left over from the Salzburg production of “Giulio Cesare.”

    • Watch out Dancing Danielle, she’s got the high notes, the dancing and she sings both Verdi and Madame Mao.

      Hrovo is not sounding good in that clip. Lets hope he is rested and in better voice.

    • Is it me or does Alvarez not sound very good in that first clip? (I do love his wholehearted embrace of the dance number).

      • louannd

        I thought he was marking; or, there is something wrong with the miking.

  • Gualtier M

    Was the dress rehearsal of “Ballo” open to the public? Did any of our parterre chère publique attend? Spill.

    • fidelio101

      November 5th was the dress rehearsal that was supposed to be open to those who had tickets but then they decided to close it because of the rehearsal time they lost due to the storm. Those stainless steel desks give me a very uneasy feeling about what the final scene will be like LOL. Certainly not the ballroom from the beautiful production they trashed.

  • More details about last night’s Ballo please. Anyone?

    • Indiana Loiterer III
      • Thanks so much, Indiana. I gotta ask: What’s with the font on that blog? I could barely make it through the review.

        • Clita del Toro

          Kashie, I agree with the reviewer’s assessment of the singing and conducting of Ballo.
          So far on opera-l, a few reviews of the singing do not agree. They loved the singing.
          I do want to see the production in HD if I can get a ticket.

          • Clita del Toro

            PS the font seemed onto me?

          • I think I need a new prescription for my glasses. That font looked rather fuzzy to me.

      • Thanks for the link, Indiana! Kashania, the font is called Sorts Mills Goudy, it comes with Blogger. I think it looks great on my Mac, but someone else did tell me it was hard to read on their Windows computer, so maybe I should consider adjusting it if it’s that much of a bother for many people.

        Also I highly recommend y’all go see this Ballo.

        • Clita del Toro

          I wrote, the font seemed ok to me! But I have a Mac.

        • I appreciated your detailed review, Zerbinetta. And yes, I have Windows, so that’s the problem.

          • Thanks for reading! (I’m not tech-savvy enough to have considered that fonts might look different on different operating systems. Will look into it.)

        • oedipe


          The rarer fonts do not work well on all operating systems. They may look good on your Mac and look like gibberish on a Windows computer. Whereas the more common fonts, such as Arial or Times New Roman, are generally safer bets.

  • grimoaldo

    AP review:
    “David Alden’s vivid, nightmarish take on Verdi’s ‘Masked Ball’
    When the director and his team came out to take their curtain calls, they were greeted with a mixture of bravos and boos, about in equal measure.
    There were nothing but cheers, however, for the unusually well-balanced group of singers who filled the five leading roles. For Sondra Radvanovsky in the role of Amelia, the night was a special triumph, her powerful, penetrating voice filling the house with refulgent sound. ”

    WQXR blog:
    Review: Boos for the Met’s Handsome New Ballo Weren’t

    “Musically, the performance showed how top artists become even better. That wonderful breath control that has allowed Hvorostovsky to take long phrases in a single breath is, more than ever, a vehicle of deepening characterization, his voice having grown beautifully into Verdi repertoire. Alvarez doesn’t vanquish memories of Luciano Pavarotti, who brought a special darkness to Gustavo, but he’s as fine as any Verdi tenor singing today.

    As Amelia, Sondra Radvanovsky has less exterior vocal beauty than ever, though the voice can do the work, and the complete package (presence, theatricality) is formidable.”

    This review includes the interesting sentence:” In fact, Gustavo is just morally corrupt.”
    Don’t know about that. Yes, he tries to “corrupt” the wife of his closest adviser but then thinks better of it and decides to send them both abroad out of temptation’s way.