Monday November 12, 2012 - I still love experiencing opera in the house. Recordings and DVDs are wonderful souvenirs, and they give us ways to savor great performances from the past, and to see productions from other venues far away; but operas were meant to be heard (and seen) in a live theatrical setting, without amplification, and with a (hopefully) large and (even more hopefully) attentive crowd of opera lovers sharing the event in a common desire to feel this greatest of art forms work its magic.
Tonight's cast for a new Met production of Verdi's BALLO IN MASCHERA - one of my top-ten operas - looked to be one of the few truly imposing lineups of singers for any opera in the current season. It was to hear these voices in the House that I went tonight, already pretty certain the new production would be yet another dreary attempt to make opera 'relevant' for modern audiences.
In the Playbill, the director describes BALLO as "amazing" (at least he didn't say "awesome") but the only amazing thing about his response to it is how much it looks and feels like dozens of other contemporary opera productions. A sense of the period and place where the libretto indicates that the action takes place? Don't be absurd. Of course we are in some vague and nameless place at some point in the 20th century. It's no exaggeration to say that literally any opera - from FLEDERMAUS to FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER - could be staged on this set and with these costumes.
Entering the theatre, we find a gorgeous front curtain depicting the fall of Icarus, implying that we might be about to be whisked off to some opulent European court (Sweden, maybe?) but the telltale contemporary leather armchair and cocktail tray in the corner are a dead giveaway.
The king wears a panama hat, and wtf are we supposed to make of the character of Oscar in this version? Poor Kathleen Kim is stuck in an all-white zoot-suit with hair slicked back and whiskers on her chin. Endlessly puffing on a cigarette, she seems to be just a gigolo who has been hired as Gustav's personal assistant. Of course the men wear 'timeless' suits and military uniforms. High-kicking waiters celebrate the anticipated visit to Ulrica's with a can-can. How original!
As Ulrica, Dolora Zajick in red wig, black frock, coat and pocketbook, and strands of pearls, looks like Madame Flora from THE MEDIUM who has wandered into the wrong seance. The women who gather to hear her prophecies wear the same outfits they wore in the Met's lamentable MACBETH production, though I'm sure the Met didn't re-cycle. The men here have all donned long fishermen's raincoats and brim hats in a particularly unbecoming shade that my sister would refer to as "shit brindle brown".
Amelia wears a glamourous gown for her midnight trek to the gallows - not at all a scary place in this setting - and later, at home after her duplicity has been revealed, her husband threatens her with an outsized sword. She goes down on her knees as if she might have the notion that a good dose of oral sex will placate him. Instead she sings an aria.
The catalog of nonsense goes on and on, especially annoying at the end of the opening scene where the pointless hustle and bustle of the chorus and the desk-dancing waiters strove to inject some vigor into the proceedings. Amid such shenanigans, Verdi goes out the window.
Well, anyway, it was a pretty good night musically despite Fabio Luisi's dutiful but uninspired traversal of the score; is the orchestra beginning to fall off their Levine Standard? There were hints of this here and there.
But the chorus sounded good, and Trevor Scheunemann, Keith Miller, David Crawford and Mark Schowalter in supporting roles all sang well.
Kathleen Kim overcame her get-up and sang with lyric-coloratura sweetness, very impressive in her sustained solo phrase in "E scherzo o è follia". Miss Zajick was a vocally formidable Ulrica, though the miking of her "Silenzio!" was a miscalculation. Later, after a raucous 'bravo' marked the end of the tenor's 'scherzo', Dolora took her sweet time before making her next entrance: order was restored.
Marcelo Alvarez entered into the spirit of the production - such as it was - and his voice falls pleasantly on the ear, and he did things with words and dynamics to keep the familiar music alive. That vocally he did not efface memories of Bergonzi, Domingo, Pavarotti or even Bruno Prevedi in this role is not a problem: Alvarez in the love duet was the equal of any of them.
The love duet was in fact the first vocal apex of the evening; prior to that Sondra Radvanovsky had swallowed some of her lower phrases at Ulrica's (though she shone in the soaring passage "Consentimi, o signore"). Her aria at the gallows had exciting vocal amplitude but some flatness in the middle and some metal higher up; mushy diction prevented her from scoring verbal points. But then everything came into focus and she and Alvarez, abetted by Luisi at his most attentive, made glorious music in this most passionate of operatic love duets. Radvanovsky's near perfect rendering of her plea "Morro, ma prima in grazia" was undone in the end when she sustained the final note too long and her pitch went flat; this put a damper on a potential ovation.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky looked phenomenal and sang superbly all evening: so stylish, so emotional. But once his wife slinked away in her shame, Dima seized the grandest of Verdi baritone opportunities, and from "Alzati!" and throughout the great aria "Eri tu" he took the performance to the heights. He poured forth a Golden Age flood of spine-tingling vocalism. His thrilling sense of the aria's fury and heartbreak found full expression, his stunning breath support and wondrously wrought dynamics set his performance of the aria among the very finest moments in my many years of opera-going.
The upper tiers of the House seemed quite full but there were many empty seats in the orchestra. Two Gelbish intermissions managed to kill the evening's musico-dramatic impetus: why an opera of just over 2 hours duration needs a 3-hour and 24-minute performance-time allotment is beyond me. But listening to Hvorostovsky sing "Eri tu" made all other concerns vanish.