Un Ballo in Maschera, Paris Opera

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The problem with Ballo is that there is still too much of Eugène Scribe’s original play and his corny twists for the opera to shine without a star cast. So what happens when the tenor singing Riccardo, Marcelo Alvarez, is indisposed and his replacement, Evan Bowers, discovers after one scene that he is also ill?

One of the most excruciating experiences I have had at the Paris Opera. Bowers’ terminal-ward croaking was not, of course, representative of his talent but he is not quite major house material at his best. This does not excuse the Paris Opera’s breakdown in protocol: most of the audience found out who he was only when an official announced that he was unwell.

Alvarez, when he returns, will no doubt put some life into Gilbert Deflo’s soulless, static staging but he will have to pull the stops out. It is hard enough to pin down Riccardo’s character – enlightened despot or blithering idiot? – but casting him as Abraham Lincoln only confuses us further.

Deflo has in any case left it to William Orlandi’s gloomy sets to provide the theatre. Orlandi reproduces the Lincoln Memorial, a mausoleum for Renato’s home (very cosy) and a funereal ballroom where all the ladies are in black (spouses mown down at Gettysburg, perhaps). This is a black mass that sidesteps the crucial contrast between a frivolous society and its conspiratorial undertow.

Angela Brown (Amelia) is the only African-American in the cast but looks positively paleface next to Elena Manistina’s blackface Ulrica, whose retinue have not been spared the boot black either. Grotesque.

Manistina delivers the goods with a sterling mezzo; Brown launches big-house decibels but suffers from choppy phrasing and a tremulous – all right, wobbly – middle register. And her “Who? Me?” facial expressions make for poor acting even by operatic standards.

Ludovic Tézier, in glorious voice as Renato, and Camilla Tilling’s Oscar unlock the magic in the music. Semyon Bychkov’s conducting does the same for the score – the orchestra plays magnificently for him – but his zeal for bright sonorities is not idiomatic Verdi.

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