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The man in the ironic mask

The realization of the opera Un ballo in maschera by Verdi and the librettist Antonio Somma is almost as famous as the opera itself. Based on the play Gustavus III by Eugène Scribe, it is very loosely based on the murder of the aforementioned enlightened despot by a disgruntled military officer during a masked ball at the Stockholm Opera House.  

Following an assassination attempt on the life of Napoleon III by three Italians in 1858, the censors in Naples (where the opera was originally to premiere) demanded drastic changes to the setting of the opera as the political climate in Europe was not conducive to depicting a monarch being killed onstage.

After withdrawing from the commission with the Teatro San Carlo over their demanded revisions, Verdi took his opera and headed to Rome before finally acquiescing into changing the main characters’ names and moving his story to colonial Boston. It was common practice to set the opera there until the past half century.

Despite all of the initial controversy, the plot of Ballo seems relatively anodyne. In typical operatic fashion, the assassin becomes the King’s best friend and the murder is spurred on by a love triangle. There is little commentary on the nature of Gustav/Riccardo’s rule in the libretto other than Count Ribbing and Count Horn making vague references to those who have died because of the King.

His subjects seem to adore him and they even mourn over his death during the opera denouement. He asks for forgiveness from his best friend turned betrayer as he dies and is given it. It is conflicts created by the midnight tryst that comprise the core emotional content of the opera, not the political commentary.

Renowned stage director and operatic boat-rocker David Alden tried very hard to say something original in the new production this warhorse that opened last night at the MET, but the result was primarily the creation of a disjointed hodgepodge of interesting ideas and pretty stage pictures that were largely devoid of dramatic truthfulness.

A large painting of Icarus falling from the sky adorned the stage, and if you read the program notes Alden goes on about how Gustavus is similar to Icarus in that they want to have it all and end up getting too big for their britches. Ok. But would anyone have made that connection as a result of the way the story was presented instead of it being plastered all over the stage?

At the ball guests, were wearing black wings, and an Icarus cutout even descended from the rafters in case we missed the enormous painting of him. Is the connection far fetched?  Maybe not.  But a painting on stage does not a story make.  It may as well have been any other painting, with any other uninsightful blurb to explain its function.

In the program notes Alden says that Paul Steinberg‘s spacious sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel‘s costumes were meant to create a “very correct Swedish court” from the early 20th century, but then Alden mentioned that the production was intended to be “dreamlike.” Apparently, that’s why Gustavus spent a fair part of the evening in an armchair downstage overlooking what’s happening.  But the other characters speak to him while he is in the armchair.  His sitting in it never removed him from the action or interaction with other characters.

Furthermore, the sets were sterile and not much seemed out of place. To the contrary, it just came across as a typical European production circa 2012.  The only times during which I thought I actually was dreaming was when I watched butlers and chorus members do a kick line and creep back and forth like back up dancers from “Smooth Criminal” when Gustavus announced the plan for everyone to head over to Ulrica’s house.  What was with Maxine Braham‘s over the top choreography?

The one effective scene of the entire evening was Act III scene I in Anckarström’s study. Indeed, it was the only time all night that the evocation of film noir that Alden mentioned in the the Met’s promotional videos seemed appropriate.    The set was a smallish rectangle that was empty save for a chair and a painting of Gustavus.  It employed the chiaroscuro lighting made famous during the classical film noir period of the 40s and 50s.  As we watched Anckarström succumb to his sinister nature, the backdrop of the set went black in small segments.

But more importantly, the scene’s melodrama could have come straight from The Maltese Falcon.   Sondra Radvanovsky used her sexuality and the memory of their child to convince her husband not to send her on a swimming trip with the fishes.  Think “I’m over the moon for ya Johnny, honest!”  In a particularly affecting moment during “Morrò ma prima in grazia” (Amelia’s plea to see her son one last time), she sings the last phrases to the painting illuminating the guilt she feels for still loving the king despite what it has done to her family.

Would that Alden could have created more such moments of dramatic honesty instead of pounding the us over the head with heavy-handed Icarus symbolism.  Unfortunately, the rest of the audience was not so objective. The production team was roundly booed when they came on stage for their bows.

The musical aspects of the show found precious few delights as well. Fabio Luisi‘s conducting was generally bloodless, and there were quite a few moments in which the singers were not in sync with the pit. But generally the orchestra was as it usually is under him; unobtrusive but also uninspiring.

Marcelo Alvarez proved to be woefully inadequate in the role of the doomed monarch.   His phrasing was as dull as dishwater, the top of the voice was forced and dry, but worse the role seemed largely uncharacterized. When he realizes he must send Amelia back to England so as not to ruin her, there was no pathos at all.  He just stood upstage, waved his arms awkwardly and yelled out ugly high notes.  His performance made you wonder what Amelia saw in him as a lover (in their duets he may as well have been singing to a lampshade, so dispassionate was singing) and his King came across as an absolute dolt. There were no discernible moments of fear for his life, or regret for his betrayal of his friend.

Kathleen Kim was expectedly annoying in the obnoxious role of king’s page Oscar.  The low point might have been during “Saper vorreste” during which she danced around like an imp with wings. Wings, I might add, that I never understood why he/she was wearing.  If Gustavus is like Icarus, why isn’t he the one wearing the wings? Kim’s clear, bell-like tone was more pleasurable than her completely un-boylike presentation.

Dolora Zajick was in fine vocal form as the soothsayer Ulrica with booming chest tones and a deliciously steely upper register, but Alden didn’t let her be much fun.  Her Ulrica was perhaps the least fanciful character of the entire evening.  She wore an unassuming black dress and white pearls, and stated in no uncertain terms and without histrionic gestures that she had spoken to Satan and that the King was going to be iced by his best friend. Interesting conceptually (perhaps Ulrica is supposed to be the one dose of hard reality in this fantasy land early 20th century Sweden), but not very effective theatrically.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky started cool and warmed up as his Anckarström became increasingly more homicidal. His is a tad too soft grained to be an archetypal Verdi baritone, but he has a liquid legato that he put to fine use during “Eri tu”  in the last act of the opera and for which he was given a hearty ovation.

But the evening was Radvanovsky’s, and thoroughly so. Her ascension to the position of reigning Verdi soprano at the MET has proven to be one of the few unequivocal artistic glories of the tumultuous Gelb administration. Hers was a delectable, scene-chewing and unashamedly “old school” Italianate performance.  She made a meal out of the character of Amelia, and thus portrayed her as a victim of her own devotion to two aloof and selfish men.

A golden tone she has not, but when she sinks her teeth into a phrase you can’t take your ears off of her. Her top gleams like the afternoon sun and she was dramatically compelling for the duration of her time onstage. She staggered hopelessly and sang passionately as she journeyed through the dark to find the herbs meant to rid her of her shameful love for the king.

My favorite moment of the evening was during a tender moment of the otherwise ecstatic love duet between Amelia and Gustavus in act two, wherein Amelia implores him to protect her from her own heart. Those beautifully colored pianissimo phrases are still sparking in my mind’s ear.  The Met audience got this one right and the house came down when she came out for her bow.

Despite all of my qualms, I was never bored and (save for Alvarez) I was never disgusted.  The production leaves much to be desired, but Radvanovsky, Zajick and Hvorostovsky manage to make this show worth seeing.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

43 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:


  • Porgy Amor says:

    Even so, this is one I will want to catch. Even this less-than-positive review (for which, thanks, LW, very well written) makes it sound as if it belongs in the upper tier of new productions of warhorses in the Gelb era. I would see these stills and think it’s something to my taste. I’m not surprised the Met audience booed the production team.

    I’ll be surprised if I like Radvanovsky as much as LW did — I usually find her downright unpleasant both to listen to and to watch attempt acting (the TROVATORE HD a prime example) — but we’ll see. I could not agree more about Alvarez. His DVD of this opera with Urmana, though certainly the worst I’ve ever sat through, is one of the most boring. It sounds as though he’s giving basically the same performance with a few added years of wear.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      There was a “not” missing in my next to last sentence. “His DVD of this opera with Urmana, though certainly NOT the worst I’ve ever sat through, is one of the most boring.” For added clarification, I meant videos of all operas, not just of BALLO.

    • RosinaLeckermaul says:

      I agree. the production looks intriguing. After seeing the video clips and stills, I bought a ticket for next Monday’s performance. I was reluctant to go because I have reservations about Alvarez, but the production certainly looks better than most recent Met productions and, from what I read, the director actually directed and didn’t focus on special effects.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “Marcelo Alvarez proved to be woefully inadequate in the role of the doomed monarch. His phrasing was as dull as dishwater, the top of the voice was forced and dry, but worse the role seemed largely uncharacterized…He just stood upstage, waved his arms awkwardly and yelled out ugly high notes.”

    I knew that was just what he would be like, that is exactly what he did when I saw him eight years ago at Covent Garden.
    What a pity they could not have got Alagna who is doing the role in Vienna in the New Year, or brought back Vargas.

    “Kathleen Kim was expectedly annoying in the obnoxious role of king’s page Oscar.”

    You are the second person, after Unfaithful Zerbinetta, to have a review appear here saying this character is annoying, I do not find him (her?) so, but more important than the character to me is the music Verdi has written for the character, adding a quality of French light music to the Italian melodrama which is one of the things that make this glorious work unique, so vive Oscar!

    ” Fabio Luisi‘s conducting was generally bloodless, and there were quite a few moments in which the singers were not in sync with the pit. But generally the orchestra was as it usually is under him; unobtrusive but also uninspiring.”

    Sad. How soon the Met has lost what was its most precious asset, the glorious Met orchestra under Levine! I was watching Pav and Millo and Nucci in Ballo under Levine the other day on youtube, Levine was such a tremendous Verdi conductor, the orchestra was magnificent.

    “But the evening was Radvanovsky’s, and thoroughly so. Her ascension to the position of reigning Verdi soprano at the MET has proven to be one of the few unequivocal artistic glories of the tumultuous Gelb administration.”

    Love her, love her, love her.
    Keep rockin’, Radvan!

    Thanks for the review.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      It was not the orchestra’s fault that Luisi was so provincial and misguided the players into several traps that never should have happened (e.g. cadential moments poorly prepared and ragged nearly to the extent of the Slatkin Traviata debacle).

    • Ilka Saro says:

      Totally agree with Grimoaldo about loving Radvanovsky, and not expecting much from Alvarez. And I agree about Oscar. In fact, perhaps certain kinds of people would be naturally irritated by Oscar. The point of Oscar’s character is to illustrate the atmosphere of frivolity at Gustav’s court, the glittering backdrop against which this drama of politics and love is played. If people are irritated by that frivolity, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s integral to the opera.

      But I disagree with “What a pity … they could not have brought back Vargas”. I love Vargas in rep that is vocally lighter: his Ramiro in Cenerentola was outstanding. (And by vocally lighter, I do not necessarily mean vocally less demanding.) In parts that are more appropriately sung by a spinto tenor (and often given to a dramatic tenor) his voice loses its velvety shine, and takes on a harsh, colorless edge. I have no idea whether he will ruin himself singing heavier rep, but I did not look forward to his Gustav/Riccardo in Ballo, and I dread that he would be the third in a succession of brilliant Mexican tenors who wrecked themselves singing parts there were too heavy: First Araiza, Second Villazon.

      • Arianna a Nasso says:

        I agree with your opinion about Vargas’s work in heavier roles, but he won’t ruin himself with those roles. He’s 52 years old, and for example, he has been singing Ballo for at least 15 years now. If the voice would be ruined by heavier rep, it would have happened by now There will be a natural decline from this point on, but I don’t expect a pre-mature vocal collapse as with Araiza and Villazon. He’s got a good technique and balances his repertoire to a reasonable degree.

        • grimoaldo says:

          Yes, parts of Ballo are probably too heavy for Vargas, but on the other hand at least he can do *some* of the music justice and bring out different aspects of this multifaceted character, unlike Alvarez, “woefully inadequate” in this role in every way.
          Which is not to say that Alvarez may not be OK in other parts, but the King / Riccardo needs more than someone just standing there coming out with a few good phrases every now and then.

        • kashania says:

          Vargas just finished singing Manrico in Toronto. Yes, his voice is light for the part, but other than “Di quella pira”, much of the role can be approached lyrically. What he lacked in power, he made up for with his elegant legato and Italiante phrasing. And his voice has seasoned to a point where he even sounds like Bergonzi in the mid-register. I would like to hear his Riccardo/Gustavo.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Me too.

          • Camille says:

            Et moi aussi.

            ‘Cause, say what one likes about the voice, the man has a real and solid technique with that elegant phrasing so necessary in this part. As well, he has sung Don Carlo(s), and that seems FAR heavier than King Gustav. Just sayin’.

            Alvarez did not sound that bad to me in this performance, as heard over the Live Stream. Better than the HD Trovatore I saw a while back. Didn’t he lose weight as well? Looks and sounds better to me. For some reason he seems to be a favored dumping ground for years now. I have heard worse.

            The rest all seemed their usual selves, no better nor worse than many other performances.

            And my vote for The Most All-Time Irritating Oscar goes to:
            Young Ok Shin. Oy……

          • Clita del Toro says:

            And let’s not forget that Björling sang the role and was wonderful in it. His did not possess a not a big, spinto voice, but he had a rock-solid technique and a gorgeous voice.

          • Porgy Amor says:

            I agree with these pro-Vargas sentiments. His voice is slender for a lot of what he undertakes, but he’s a first-rate artist always. He was the only one in that awful French-language Urtext DON CARLOS (the Konwitschny production at Vienna, on DVD and also CD) whose singing rose above the range of barely passable to terrible, and who belonged in an important production at one of the front-rank houses. Between his singing and Nadja Michael’s acting, there was approximately one good performance. On his real home turf, e.g. Don Ottavio, he’s hard to beat, and when I heard him in that part in 2011, he seemed to me better than ever. It was a great performance.

          • Camille says:

            Just was thinking of Bjoerling as an example of a more lyrical tenor, Clitissima, you read my mind!

            Wonder if, following that logic, J. Calleja would be work out in this role, as there is a slight similarity between them.

            Clita, I am just finishing listening (again, and in the car) the end of Siegfried, with Melchior and Fladstad. It makes me want to cry. Cry for what WAS, and for what we were subjected to of late.

            Very tired out so must stop
            My love to you—
            Your Cammiest

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Unequivocal? I hardly think so.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Cammiest Dearest: That Siegfried was wonderful. Flagstad sounds so young and fresh--I almost didn’t recognize her voice. Such great stuff.

        I hope you have a nice night and wake up refreshed and lovely.

        Kissesxoxoxoxoxoxoxooxoxo

    • papopera says:

      Oscar is the most tiresome character in all opera. Can’t stand him/her.

  • cosmodimontevergine says:

    From my vantage point at the Ballo opening there was only a small pocket of production team booers, the ones who go to the Met to boo -most of the audience at that point was making ts way frantically to the exits. During the show the reaction in general was much warmer and appreciative. The “fuggi fuggi generale” is easy to understand when the show is made to drag on with two long intermissions. Curiosity impels me to ask though what a “home grown” opera production would be like as opposed to a contemporary European one?

    • Ilka Saro says:

      I can hazard a guess as to “homegrown”. The last production of Ballo at the Met was pure conventional spectacle. Very nice costumes, massive baroque decor, completely engulfing the singers during the opera’s many intimate moments. Although not a production by Zeffirelli, it followed that mold, complete with a ballet-harlequinade being performed above the lovers as they bid farewell in the last scene.

      • Indiana Loiterer III says:

        But last I checked Piero Faggioni (the director of the last Met Ballo) was Italian.

        • Ilka Saro says:

          Well, yeah. And Verdi is neither American nor a New Yorker. But at the Met, whether the designers were American or not, until recently the style has been lavish “realistic” spectacles. And this blog is abundant with pointed references to regie as a European thing not commonly seen in American. So, yeah, Faggioni’s Ballo was homegrown style.

      • oedipe says:

        Gee, I never before thought of baroque, rococo, or Restoration as homegrown American.

  • phoenix says:

    It’s good to see at least a bit of enthusiastic discourse again for a Met performance on this site. I get the impression that although the regie was not universally admired by all -- the staging, costumes and individual interpretations got more diverse responses.
    - I heard the Sirius broadcast (which sounded curiously awkward).
    - Alvarez, whom most everyone seemed to dislike, sounded best to my ears on the radio. But having seen him live in the House as Cavaradossi, I know the flaws you are talking about -- absolutely no squillo, limited extension of volume as well as limited brightness of tone, very little obvious dramatic involvement -- but still I find his singing quite satisfactory to my ears.
    - Kim was certainly adequate. The barely medium sized voice of Dima is not a Verdi baritone for me -- much better he was in the lyric baritone roles (as Onegin & Prince Andrei Bolkonsky). Zajick is an institution in itself, particularly in a role such as Mme. Arvidsson.
    - All of this is IMO -- I am not here to quibble with that great, verbose elocutioner Mz. Weaves. Over the past 15 years, la Rad has given some great performances -- some of them (Vespri Wien 2007) were almost phenomenally good -- but lately I haven’t heard much better than adequate from her -- and often worse. She still can (for brief periods on a good nite) come up with a bright, beautiful sound but it is soon replaced by vinegary tones so acidic that I can’t tell if she is on pitch or just taking a timout, Popsy-style break off the line. No, I personally don’t find those kind of sour vocal aethetics ‘high drama’.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      1. I like Oscar and his music and feel that it is beautifully integrated into the “dark” score. Until all the recent bitching about the “operetta-like” music in the opera, it never occurred tome that there was a problem, simply because that’s what I personally love (in part) about the opera.

      2. I have always rooted for Radvan, but I want a whole performance, not occasional brilliant moments. In the past her timbre has never really bothered me, but it is starting to do that + off pitch singing is annoying.

      3. Alvarez was okay in parts. I have never got his singing or his boring voice, and it’s a shame he was cast in the opera.

      4. Hvor, another singer who is really not for Verdi, but he tries???? I’d rather hear a singer like Sereni (on a good night) in the role.

      5. I saw nothing wrong with Kim’s singing.

      • phoenix says:

        What I hear them complain about with Alvarez is exactly what I felt the first few times I heard [the now beloved] Carlo Bergonzi in the 1960′s -- although Bergonzi was certainly more articulate as well as a better stylist. To each their own.

        • Clita del Toro says:

          I was at Bergonzi’s Met debut in Aida with Stella. I never had those complaints about his singing. Bergonzi can’t be compared with Alvarez.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            PS True that Bergonzi’s voice was lacking in squillo (I was never a squillo queen although I lived MdM) but his elegant, stylish singing was perfect for Ballo. I wonder if Calleja could sing the role?

          • phoenix says:

            I wrote that it was ‘what I felt’ ONLY -- not any complaints that I heard from others -- Bergonzi was already a God at the Met by the time I got there. But remember Clita, those were the days of great tenors (such as Corelli & Vickers), many with larger, brighter tones than Bergonzi had. The elgegant & stylish Bergonzi (and Gedda) were in a different league entirely, but there is nothing to prevent them from being compared to any other past, present or future tenors -- that is the nature & freedom of criticism. Again, to each their own!

          • oedipe says:

            Calleja has a great lyric tenor voice but he is in no way a spinto. And in terms of acting, he is no better than Alavarez, I would say he is more wooden, actually.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Sorry, Phoenix, I misunderstood you! ;=)

      • Camille says:

        That never occurred to me, either, caro maestro Clita del T.

        It HAS occurred to me that what Verdi wrote was sheer brilliance, and where did he came up with it—since people are referring to “French and operetta music”—is it possible Verdi took a long look at Auber’s opera of thirty years before Le Bal Masqué, perhaps???????? I do not know this work, having never seen the score but if someone, perchance, does know it, ‘twould be interesting to know if he did ‘borrow’ anything, conceptually or otherwise. Verdi had been at least twice or three times to the Paris Opéra at that point. Curious

        • grimoaldo says:

          I have heard the Auber work several times Camille and I do not think Verdi “borrowed” anything directly from it, it is more a question of Oscar’s music reflecting a certain French style, for example the “L’eclat de Rire” from Auber’s Manon Lescaut, premiered at the Opera Comique only a couple of years before Ballo:

          • Camille says:

            Aha! Case closed and thanks for taking the time and effort to respond, grimmie. As those who have actually seen the Auber version are few, and far between, I didn’t anticipate a response, so yours is doubly appreciated. Perhaps it is so, that Verdi patterned Oscar’s “Saper vorreste” on the aforementioned Manon Lescaut excerpt.

            At any rate, the second act of Ballo is a great glory in Italian opera.

  • kennedet says:

    It’s a pleasure to read Parterian’s views and other reviewers versus Tommasini’s. How do you make sense of this????: “Mr. Alvarez, can be a blunt and inelegant singer and an indifferent actor. Mr. Alvarez sings with subtlety, shadings and soaring lyricism. Now and then he lunged at high notes, and the bottom of his range was weak. But this was one of his most dramatically charged and refined performances at the Met”. How many times is he going to contradict himself???? HELP!!!!

    • Clita del Toro says:

      One doesn’t make sense of TT’s reviews.

    • phoenix says:

      Gag! It seems as if TT and I have something in common (how dreadful!) -- we both have difficult with ‘syntax’.
      - I think what TT means is this: “Mr. Alvarez, CAN be a blunt and inelegant singer and an indifferent actor.” Then he goes on to say “… this was one of his most dramatically charged and refined performances at the Met”. The gist of it all is sort of a turned-around backhanded compliment. Again to be honest, I can’t take up the clamps against him -- I have to agree with TT about the positive aspects of Alvarez’ performance Thursday night.

      • kennedet says:

        O.K., but you would think that TT or his editor would correct problems of syntax if they wrote for a major newspaper. Enough.

    • kashania says:

      I didn’t hear the broadcast but TT’s review seems pretty well-written to me. I think phoenix is right about TT giving Alvarez a back-handed compliment, saying that he’s usually a bad actor (no question, there) and can be an unsubtle singer. But that Alden brought out a better actor in him and that Alvarez held his bad habits as a singer in check for the most part.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        Whatever else is right or wrong with TT’s review, and I cannot say at this point whether it applies to Alden’s work in this BALLO, his last sentence is bang-on correct. One promising and acclaimed director after another (some associated with the opera world, some not) has fizzled at the Met.

  • manou says:

    The HuffPo reviewer loves Alvarez, but is sadly unaware that “arduous” does not mean “ardent”.