Reviewed by James Karas
As the curtain goes up on Un Ballo in Maschera in Ljubljana, we see a huge staircase with three landings occupying almost the entire stage. We are listening to the overture as eight men dressed in white military uniforms emerge furtively from trapdoors in various areas of the stairs. They have their pistols out and are looking for someone. They reach the bottom of the stairs, find a chair and as they point their guns, notice that it is empty. They disperse as the overture ends.
This is the dramatic curtain-raiser that Director Vinko Möderndorfer and Set Designer Branko Hojnik have devised for Ballo. They want to emphasize the conspiratorial aspect of the opera where a few men can collude in the murder a ruler. More about this later.
Möderndorfer and dramaturge Blaž Lukan have brought the plot to a modern setting with a powerful civic leader, Riccardo, rather than an Earl or a King as in the original and revised versions. In the original version, the main character was a Swedish king but a hypersensitive censor forced Verdi to make him the Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, where it was presumably more acceptable to murder a high-ranking official.
The production has several alternate casts but I saw the opening night performers on March 13, 2014. Two singers stood out: tenor Branko Robinšak as Riccardo and soprano Natalia Ushakova as Amelia.
Robinšak has a marvelous lyric voice and he handled the role of Riccardo with ease. He has to be generous, passionate and remorseful as he pursues illicitly but ardently his friend’s wife (wearing the mask of a friend, of course) and gives her up with her virtue intact. Robinšak shows vocal flair and gives us a fine Riccardo.
Ushakova makes a moving and very effective Amelia. She was fine throughout but rose to the heights in “Morró, ma prima in grazia,” her emotional aria where she begs her furious husband Renato to let her see her son before he kills her for her suspected infidelity.
Baritone Jože Vidic seemed to be doing a workmanlike job as Renato until Act III where in “Eri bu che macchiavi” he bursts out with such passion and marvelous singing that his performance becomes anything but workmanlike. The joy of his life loathsomely poisoned everything and Renato expresses the ultimate loss of his life through the treachery of those he loved most: his wife and his dearest friend.
The sorceress Ulrica emerges from the crevice between the divided stairs and looks as if she is materializes from the underworld. The stage is darkened and the conspirators lurk ominously around the stage. Slovenian mezzo soprano Mirjam Kalin looks very dramatic and acts as such but her singing was not as convincing.
The conspiratorial appearance of the officers led by Samuel (Saša Čano) and Tom (Peter Martinčič) during the overture gives way to the brilliant scene in the court or residence of Riccardo. Almost everyone is wearing white and it is a brilliant scene. For the second scene, the stairs are pulled apart in the centre, as I said, creating a dark path through which Ulrica enters. It is a dark, mysterious and dramatic scene.
The same stairs are moved to the side to create the grisly execution area where Amelia goes looking for the magic herb to kill her illicit love for Riccardo. About a dozen or so decaying corpses are lowered on the stage making the place indeed gruesome. The final scene is the masked ball where the colour red is emphasized, including the uniforms of the conspirators. Again, a brilliant tableau.
Against the usual advice about not putting children or animals on stage, Möderndorfer puts a child on stage (Amelia’s son) who is cute and steals the scene. When the men must choose who will kill Riccardo, they put their names in a toy truck. The little is asked to draw a name and he picks his father as the killer. A terrific and imaginative touch.
Conductor Marko Gašperšič took a very deliberate approach to the score and the small orchestra performed well.
Möderndorfer took possession of Ballo and gave us a fresh, imaginative, effective and exceptional production.