Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Verdi - Un ballo in maschera (Munich, 2016 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Un ballo in maschera

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Zubin Mehta, Johannes Erath, Piotr Beczala, George Petean, Anja Harteros, Okka von der Damerau, Sofia Fomina, Andrea Borghini, Anatoly Sivko, Scott Conner, Ulrich Reß, Joshua Owen Mills

ARTE Concert - March 2016

Un ballo in maschera sits in that difficult period of Verdi works just after the composer's 'galley years' where the musical writing is more mature in characterisation and experimental in form but still not quite as fully developed as it would be in his late works. The operas of this late-middle period still lean towards bel canto convention in arias, melody and number structure and are often burdened with ludicrous melodramatic plots that sit uncomfortably with the new found sophistication and melodic invention of the musical writing. The relationship or indeed the disparity between the music and the drama can be particularly hard to establish in a production of Un ballo in maschera.

A production that takes the drama at face value and plays it straight with all the period conventions (such as the 2008 Madrid production) does the work no favours at all. Proving that the themes and composition of the work are strong enough however, La Fura dels Baus successfully adapted the opera to a futuristic science-fiction setting where arguably the melodrama sits better. Also recently, the Met in New York have made the case that an elegant middle way between these two extremes that can also be effective, particularly when you have good Verdi singers. The question of appropriate singers in fact might ultimately be the key to making the work dramatically convincing.

The Bayerische Staatsoper's production, directed by Johannes Erath, works the middle path. It finds the same sense of elegance that you can see in the David Alden production; the sophistication of the music is there in Zubin Mehta's conducting of the orchestra; and the singing - with a few worrying exceptions - largely captures the inner emotional tone of the work. The set design and look and feel also suggests a black-and-white Hollywood melodrama - also evident in Alden's production - but there is more of an emphasis here on the air of fatalism that lies at the heart of the work, a sensibility that Verdi's music captures much better than the torrid romantic complications and the overheated political plotting of the assassination.

The emphasis in the Munich production then is largely restricted to the bedroom. A bed remains at the centre of the stage for most of the performance, and there's even another one mirrored on the ceiling high above the stage. Rather than just being merely a suggestion that it is the romantic complications that dominate (the bed tends to be an overused stage prop in this respect), it also strives to evoke that air of fatalism within the work. This is hinted at very early on during the overture which shows a dream-like encounter between Riccardo (in the Boston governor version of the opera) and the fortune-teller Ulrica, that ends with Riccardo sprawled lifeless on the bed. This vision persists when the Earl visits the fortune-teller, having been informed of her impending banishment for witchcraft, but the scene is also present in the final act pinned high above on the ceiling.

Following the internal voice of the opera rather than the plot and locations does manage to rein in the overheated nature of the more familiar plot points, but it risks making not much sense either. There's no gypsy camp or gathering at Ulrica's hut but rather figures - all elegantly attired in formal evening dress - tend to wander into the bedroom and deliver their parts. Strangest of all, Amelia doesn't go outdoors to gather herbs for her potion, but it takes place in her bedroom where her husband Renato doesn't at first recognise her and is then surprised when her identity is revealed (by strange men wandering into the room), yet he's not surprised to find Riccardo there in his bedroom. It's all very strange and dreamlike. You can take for granted too that there are no masks at this "masked ball".

As much of a cliché as it might be, you could see this production as a dream sequence of a revenge fantasy brought out by Renato's suspicions and his playing out of the role assigned to him by the fortune-teller's predictions. Emotionally at least that is pretty much the level the opera operates on anyway, so it's not too much trouble to go with the flow. Visually, the idea of dream logic is also reflected in the impressive reverse mirror-like design of the stage set with its staircase elegantly winding from the room below to the upside-down one above. A Hitchcockian use of doubles comes into play on one or two occasions with Amelia and Riccardo, and even Oscar's true female identity(!) is revealed here, all of it suggesting the perspective of Renato struggling to reconcile questions of identity and personality.

The performances all fit well with this dark vision, but the singing doesn't always meet the requirements. Piotr Beczala at least, looking uncannily and fittingly like Anton Walbrook, gives a good and only occasionally faltering performance as Riccardo. He's proving to be one of the best Verdi tenors out there at the moment, with a distinctive timbre and style of his own. George Petean does well to hold the emotional drama of Renato's key role in this production. Anja Harteros seemed somewhat distracted or absent as Amelia, her singing line wavering and unconvincing, strong on the high notes but weak and unsteady in the lower register. Her performances can be variable, but either this was a particularly bad off-night or the role just isn't entirely right for her.

Zubin Metha's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is smooth and elegant without igniting the underlying passions that are there to be exploited. In that respect at least it's in keeping with the overall tone of the production. And, in a way then, the imperfect production is also in keeping with Verdi's flawed opera which doesn't quite have fully-rounded characters who can live up to the overheated plot of suspicion, jealousy and murder that fails to make a whole lot of sense. We're not quite at Otello yet. 

Links: ARTE Concert, Bayerische Staatsoper