Un ballo in maschera, Metropolitan Opera, New York

Analytical annotations have become de rigueur these days. But sometimes they don’t help.

And so it was when the Met introduced its new Ballo in maschera. David Alden, the director, asks deep questions: “Do people know what this opera really is and the madness within this piece – the danger within it, and also the almost schizophrenic layering under the realistic surface?” If he knows the answers, he isn’t telling, or showing.

Alden has always demonstrated a probing intellect, even when his ideas were compromised by obfuscation. His Ballo pretends to take place in historic Stockholm, but, abetted by Paul Steinberg’s ever-clever designs, it takes place in a series of abstract cubes. The period is advanced to something near the first world war. Ask not why.

Although inherent definitions are respected, at least to a degree, Alden’s action scheme evolves in extreme stylisation and surrealism. The proceedings are haunted, moreover, by a lofty-arty symbol: the fall of Icarus as painted by Blondel. The cumulative images should be fraught with meaning. To these eyes, they soon looked fussy and silly.

The cast does much conscientious posing, lurching, dancing, prancing and grovelling. Everyone, from principal to chorister, earns his and her keep. Under Fabio Luisi’s supple if not subtle baton, everyone also sings reasonably well, at least by current standards. No one, however, pays due attention to Verdi’s demands for soft dynamics.

Marcelo Álvarez performs the amorous king con brio, if with little sensuality. Not incidentally, he bravely attempts the treacherous octave drops in the barcarolle. Replacing the originally scheduled Karita Mattila, Sondra Radvanovsky sings Amelia generously if a bit explosively. Dmitri Hvorostovsky blusters urgently as the baritonal antagonist. Kathleen Kim, oddly flapping white wings much of the time, flits and chirps sweetly as the cigarette-puffing pageboy. Even though directed to clutch a purse and swig booze in the manner of Menotti’s Medium, Dolora Zajick remains a force of mezzo-soprano nature as the resident fortune-teller.

Many of the first-nighters cheered the singers but booed the producers. Another Met opening, another show.


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