Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and it has been transmitted around the world Live in HD. The modern-dress production set in early twentieth century Sweden is the brainchild of director David Alden with sets designed by Paul Steinberg. The stark sets and the “feel” provide a marked contrast to the seething passions of the lovers. In the end, you are not sure if you were watching hot-blooded Italians or cool-blooded Swedes.

Un Ballo was supposed to be set in 18th century Sweden where a king was in fact assassinated. Censorship put a kibosh on that idea and the scene was transferred to 17th century Boston where one could find a vice-regal governor-general but everyone else was demoted to plebian rank.

Alden restores the plot to its Swedish base but moves it up to the last century with some serious modifications to the sets and the emotional wavelength. King Gustavo III (Marcelo Álvarez) wears a well-tailored suit but no other insignia of royalty. His secretary and best friend Count Anckarstrom (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) wears a grey suit with a raised-collar shirt and he looks every inch the high-ranking, proper civil servant.

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky), the Count’s wife and the woman the King loves is given some beautiful gowns and she is worthy of attention. So far so good.

With a king in a starring role, we are guaranteed a stay at the palace. This is where we part company with our expectations. Gustavo’s palace consists of gray walls, chrome furniture (what little there is) and some steel beams. It has an unrelentingly forbidding atmosphere but there is a huge paining of Icarus falling form the sky on the ceiling. We in theatres around the world get glimpses of the painting because Matthew Diamond, the Director for Live Cinema, controls what we see.

We see a few variations on the gray set. In Act III where the Count tells his wife that she must die for her adultery, the set consists of the same grey walls, one piece of furniture and a sloping ceiling. I am not sure if that took the entire Metropolitan Opera stage but it looked quite claustrophobic.

The background switches to Greco-Roman temples in the ball scene and I am not sure of the connection. I suppose if you can have a painting of Icarus, you can have an outburst of classicism and provide Grecian columns for the final scene.

Un Ballo has a character called Oscar who can be played for fun. In this production, soprano Kathleen Kim sings the role. She wears a white suit and sports a goatee or at least a tuft of hair on her chin. In the opening scene, she wears wings that she later discards. I suppose this provides a connection with Icarus but unconvincing is the politest thing that can be said about it.

Un Ballo has a sinister sorceress called Ulrica (mezzo Stephanie Blythe). In this production, she wears a black gown and makes her pronouncements while clutching her purse. Nothing sinister about this woman.

The guests at the so-called masked ball wear masks that cover the eyes only and you would have to be a moron not to recognize everybody.

When the Count threatens to kill Amelia, he is holding a sword. There were swords available a hundred years ago but it would be the unlikeliest weapon of choice. A gun, a knife, perhaps. It alone it would not be noticed but the accumulation of incongruities left me uncertain about how to react. The deep passion of the lovers contrasts uneasily with the cold, bureaucrats atmosphere around us.

The benevolent king being hunted down by disgruntled subjects who want to assassinate him (he killed my father; he took my castle) adds to the unease but that is Verdi and librettist Antonio Somma and we cannot blame Alden.

The singing was exceptional.  Sondra Radvanovsky was in full voice packed with emotion and passion. She is a woman in love who does not want to be unfaithful to her husband and Radvanovsky displays the conflict superbly.

Álvarez sounded a bit forced in the opening scene especially in comparison to the suave Hvorostovsky. The Russian baritone sang with such ease and resonance as to make the role appear like a cake-walk. Álvarez sounded much better when away from Hvorostovsky.

Maxine Braham choreographed parts of the production. Fabio Luisi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus and they played some of Verdi’s most passionate music superbly.

It is an interesting production that provokes thought but I would have preferred it to evoke emotion.

Un Ballo in Maschera  by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD on December 8, 2012 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

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