Un Ballo In Maschera — Saving the Best for Last

We made it to the first performance this season of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera. It will probably be the last opera we see live till the fall, and what a great way to end our Met year.

As those of you who have followed “idiots at the opera” know, the better-half and I are musical ignoramuses who came late to opera (but NEVER come late to the opera.) So don’t expect any fancy-dancy (or technically correct) descriptions of the music.

Dmitri & Piotr together at last!

First, we were unfamiliar with the opera – musically, the story, the history, etc. But we mostly love Italian opera and we love Verdi. The main reason why we actually got tickets in advance and shelled out for good seats was because of the singers. I went to hear Dmitri Hvorostvsky – my favorite baritone, and tenor Piotr Beczala, who is so good that even when the production is misconceived (Atomic Faust, Rat Pack Rigoletto) or just plain drab (Eugene Onegin, Iolanta) he makes it worth going. He also seems to get character nuances that other “singing actors” miss – body language, posture, gestures etc. He never seems stiff on stage, and manages to differentiate his characters. As for Sondra Radvanovsky, I am such an ignoramus I hadn’t heard her before and had barely heard of her. What a complete treat it was to be introduced to her in role she seemed born to sing.

The three of them were nothing short of spectacular. There are thankfully a lot of places where two or all three of these major players are on stage singing different internal monologues at the same time. Is it a duet if they are singing totally different lyrics? Or is there a specific term? Feel free to help me out if you know. In any case, the contrast of the different voice types was amazing, and in their separate arias, each shined. For us, never having heard Radnvanovsky before, she was a revelation, at times holding notes so long you could fry a egg, so long if you brushed your teeth that long everyday your dental hygenist would love you, so long that if you were watching network television and went to get yourself something from the fridge the show would be over before you got back.

Radvanovsky & Zajick

The supporting cast included soprano Heidi Stoper in the pants role of Oscar added energy and humor. She was a delight, and it’s easy to imagine her in many of the great soubrette roles, and more. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick made quite an impression as the fortune teller. Mark Showalter and Trevor Schnuenemann rounded out the cast playing two of the lead conspirators. The Met chorus was outstanding, and James Levine at the podium had the orchestra bringing it. It was truly magical – the way only a live performance could be where everyone is being inspired by everyone else. Sometimes opera feels like a competitive sport, but Thursday night it seemed more of a team effort, and the team won.

I hadn’t read anything about David Alden’s 2012 production. This being our first Ballo, I can’t compare it to a more “traditional” one, but for us the modern setting worked well. I read later it was inspired by film noir, but I noticed what I would consider more a kind of proto-film noir German expressionist vibe – like Fritz Lang or even James Whale – but slightly more restrained. Noir is noir – dark and dismal. This was weird and fun, yet still serious. We know it won’t end well. Visually there were interesting geometrical shapes and the lighting cast large shadows against walls. The use of black, white and occassionally other colors in the costumes was inspired. We idiots don’t like it when opera talks down to us by seeming too Broadway. We felt distracted and annoyed by the Rat Pack Rigoletto, and we absolutely despised the “new” book for the English language version of Die Fledermaus, but in Ballo the “Broadway-like” dancing complete with both Fosseesque and Rockette moves winked at us, and made us laugh out loud. The essence of the work was not changed by the sets and costumes, it was heightened.

The story for those unfamiliar: The opera was inspired by a real historical incident. King Gustavo of Sweden is a somewhat distracted ruler in love with his advisor and best friend’s wife. The wife, Amelia is also in love with him. The two of them wind up meeting one night, but it wasn’t Amelia’s plan. She was gathering an herb that the fortune teller told her would take away her illicit feelings. After some really passionate singing, they kiss, but that’s all. Actually, there was so much applause, the kiss probably lasted longer than it should have. The husband finds out his wife was out with the King and suddenly turns from loyal friend, to coconspirator in a murder plot, even though Amelia hadn’t betrayed her marriage vows, and Gustavo had decided not to pursue her and to send the couple away so he wouldn’t be tempted. Things come to a head at a masked ball – un ballo in maschera.

As in all Italian operas that aren’t set in Italy, everyone acts Italian. Honestly, I don’t think the Swedes would have been that passionate and temperamental – talking of daggers and vengance. Are there even Gypsy fortune tellers in Scandinavia?

Would this make a good introductory opera? Maybe not quite as good at La Traviata, or La Boheme or Carmen – which the better-half refers to as “the Guys and Dolls of opera” – meaning even non-opera goers know and possibly like it. There are still a lot of those whacky opera conventions – and I don’t just mean a young man played by a young women, but several scenes in which someone manages to “hide” and eavesdrop in plain sight, and several times when the singers turn toward the audience to break the wall singing us their thoughts, but those on stage with them don’t hear them. Still, it may be perfect for the opera curious, or those who only go to one or two a year. For frequent fliers it probably should not be missed unless you are one of those types who’d sit at a score desk rather than watch the Willy Decker production of La Traviata because if you wanted to see a couch you’d stay in your living room.

There are only four more performance till it ends the Met season on May 9th. It looks like there are still tickets left. For those of you looking for the cheap seats and unsure how to get them, you might take a look here.

(If you enjoyed this slightly irreverent review, you might want to look around at more stuff on this blog. If you want to help out, you might consider checking out a book or two I’ve written like this one, inspired by the woman who inspired La Traviata.)