Sunday, November 25, 2012

Un Ballo in Maschera: Nell'ombre si matura

The recklessness of frivolity: David Alden's dark Ballo (Act I)
Although the visuals of David Alden's new Ballo in Maschera for the Met may be more impressive than its concept, I'm still prepared to count it as a laudable effort, and a welcome addition to the Met's generally conservative repertory of productions. I found some details questionable (e.g. dubiously consensual sex in the background of Ulrica's scene,) and some excessively literal in their symbolism (e.g. the king walking over an abyss in Act II, the three principals standing at the points of a triangle in Act III) but the concept, structured around the feckless king and emphasizing chiaroscuro contrasts, was functional, and notable for its attention to Verdi's score. Alden embraced the melodrama of plot and music, another characteristic shared with the films of the '30s and '40s which formed the production's aesthetic, but I found this often emotionally gripping, especially in the courtiers' mockery of Ulrica. As many of you may have gathered, Gentle Readers, I'd far rather see an idea executed with mixed success (or even a mixed bag of ideas) than a non-attempt at providing a meaningful staging.

In Alden's production, it is the recklessness of Gustavo (his hamartia) which drives the action. The pleasure-loving and self-dramatizing monarch flirts with the contempt of the conspirators, openly mocks the insight and the power of Ulrica (clearly he's never read the classical dramatists), dismisses his friend's advice and undervalues his courage, and isn't even particularly interested in understanding Amelia. The frivolous page, Oscar, is established as a sort of alter ego to the king: he is an Icarus figure in the staged prelude and at the masked ball, expressing his monarch's emotional states throughout. Alden emphasizes Gustavo's flaws, but does not neglect his genuine generosity, which is praised by all in the denouement. The moods and morals of the evening having been expressed in shades of grey, I was surprised by the light-flooded triumphalism of the finale, but like many an old Hollywood ending, this one leaves the future uncertain. Incidentally, the sinister splendors of the final scene (think Litvak's Mayerling) should show the Met audience that spectacle doesn't have to come coated in glitter or burdened by brocade.

Love and triangles: Hvorostovsky and Radvanovsky as Renato and Amelia
The energy of the evening was kept up by strong performances all around. Fabio Luisi emphasized the tensions and incongruities in the score, bringing out the dark undertones in frivolous rhythms, and making space for real tenderness even in moments defined by danger. The Met orchestra was on very good form indeed, and kept the drama moving with the breathless tension that made me love this crazy opera in the first place. (See Zerbinetta for a thoughtful difference of opinion on the inherent awesomeness of this particular Verdi.) The chorus showed a tendency to mill, but sang well. Keith Miller's sizable bass and imposing presence as Sam (or Count Ribbing) brought welcome menace to the conspiratorial duo. Kathleen Kim was a minimally annoying Oscar, though a trifle underpowered at the outset. The timbre of her soprano kept the page from seeming too chirpy, and Kim handled the demands of the choreography as well as the coloratura. Dolora Zajick made a truly formidable Ulrica, with the wisdom to be wary of the court's collective violence, as well as of the powers with which she deals. Zajick's vocal power is indeed imposing, extending to gravi that fill the house.

As Amelia, Sondra Radvanovsky was never less than compelling, recalling Ingrid Bergman in sensuality and tragic dignity, and singing with emotional directness as well as impressive power. Her Amelia is clearly living on her nerves, driven to distraction by her attraction to Gustavo and her efforts to suppress it. The choreography seemed to revert to operatic tropes (perhaps with intentional artificiality?) but when Radvanovsky was asked to lie on the floor, she did so with every evidence of conviction. Her plush, dark tones are beautifully suited to the role, and she sang with phrasing that dripped with passion, and beautiful control of dynamics. "Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa" was thoughtful, not hysterical, and with "Morro, ma prima in grazia" she made Renato and numerous members of the family circle, myself included, weep. I could have wished for more desperation in the chaste declarations of love in Act II (cf. the desperate chastity of Love Affair or The Prisoner of Zenda). As it was, I ended up desperately rooting for the restoration of Amelia's relationship with Renato, which was characterized (despite everything!) by not only passion but tenderness on both sides. In the extremity of their distress, they caress each other as if instinctively; even as Amelia departs to say farewell to her son, she hesitates as if arresting the impulse to go to her husband, to comfort him and be comforted. In the hands of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the tormented Renato emerged as a surprisingly admirable character, as well as a compelling one.

I confess that I've sometimes seen Renato as similar to Herbert Marshall's role in Blonde Venus: a man strong on the conventional virtues--or, more accurately, convinced of the virtues of convention--somewhat chilly, and ill-suited by temperament to understand his wife, or try to. Hvorostovsky's Renato, in contrast, was both a noble and a courageous man, who undertakes his heroic endeavors in Act II without a hint of the indulgent self-regard that is Gustavo's hallmark. "Alla vita che t'arrida" was passionate, and anything but staid. When Amelia reveals her identity (to protect him from being beaten to a pulp by the conspirators) he stands aghast, but as soon as the other men depart he moves to take his wife in his arms with a convulsive passion, trying to hold onto the woman who he believes he has already lost. Such telling moments were abundant. The brutality of the Act III opening seems out of character for this man; Hvorostovsky managed to suggest Renato's habitual self-control in its dissolution. In his anger there was a rough pleading made oblique by pride, and "Eri tu" was scathing, from rage of explosive force to brokenhearted piano phrases; it seemed dreadful that Sam and Tom should intrude on this most private grief. Renato's reference to Amelia's "innocent hand" was given unusual significance, and the concluding quintet of Act II was gripping, with Radvanovsky beautifully dignified even in her fear. That I was not more impressed with Marcelo Alvarez may be partly attributed to the excellence of the other principals. Although seeming a little labored at first, Alvarez gave an earnest performance, and handled the demands of the role creditably. Certainly the audience rewarded the great arias with applause. But I found lacking in Alvarez the recklessness which allegedly characterized this Gustavo. Even his most ardent outbursts seemed slightly calculated. This prince self-flatteringly dramatizes even his own death, demonstrating a degree of narcissism which seems cruel to Amelia, who has put aside all thought of self, and Renato, whose sense of his own identity--as counselor, as friend, as lover and husband--has been so crucially undermined. Though Alden's production left some intellectual loose ends, the performance nonetheless had a powerful emotional impact.

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