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TWOJA MUZA (June/July) 2015/English


                                                       UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

                                      by Charles Kellis

Verdi was facing a political and religious balancing act trying to produce his first performance of Un Ballo in Maschera.  In the dangerously volatile atmosphere surrounding ITALY of the late1800's, his first attempt in Naples failed. The story's outrageous depiction of an assassination of a King created too much anxiety for the Neapolitan politicians, even resulting in an attempt to imprison Verdi. It finally took place in Rome, where the climate, despite ominous, looming overtones of the Vatican, somehow became a little more politically permissive. At one point, instead of the original Swedish version, it even became necessary to cross the ocean to incarnate a Boston, Mass. setting with different assumed names, replacing the king of Sweden, Gustavo with the name, Riccardo  ---also including ---Renato for Anakstrom,  and the conspirators, Tom for Count Horn and Sam for Count Ribbing.
         The director, David Alden, envisioned Gustavo's character with a psychological affinity embracing Greek Mythology's, Icarus. He carried this theme throughout the entire opera depicting an upside down angel, ostensibly in flight with melting wings. The entrance of Oscar brightened the atmosphere with a kind of quasi slapstick, vaudeville routine featuring dancers presenting fleet Broadway choreography. All led on by the soprano Heidi Stober, also with a pair of wings. Never allowing the Icarus theme to be possib ly forgotten, the dark, death foreboding ballroom was also filled with black wings, highlighted by still another dominant hanging Icarus. Determined persistence! A great initial concept of tying together the idea of the Fallen Angel but too much is too much. Exhausting and superfluous!  I missed the Gala excitement of an extravagant Masked Ball, with all the glitter and disguised courtiers enjoying a wonderful party instead of the dark, doom predicting, gloomy stage.

The superb tenor, Piotr Beczala portrayed the carefree but conflicted King of Sweden, capturing both Gustavo's light heartedness together with his ambivalence. Caught in a  web of passion regarding the wife of his best faithful friend, his voice, full of pathos and shimmering clarion tone was in full command. One can only say, "This is truly a wonderful singer". He does everything right. His technique serves his delivery with masterful accuracy of pitch, his beautiful tone quality is evenly smooth throughout his range and his expression of the Italian language is
always clear and intelligible.

His best friend and advisor, Renato, was sung by Dimitri Hvorostovsky, who seems to have gained a reputation of having become one of the world's major baritones. Unfortunately, in this performance his voice lacked projection, often producing a rather dull tone. Although, he did portray the role of Renato with characteristically penetrating violence toward his wife as he realized her romantic attachment to the King of Sweden, he quickly changed with, "Non e sull' lei", resolving instead to kill his unfaithful friend. His rendition of the most famous of baritone arias "Eri tu", was full of passionate fury turning to beautiful past memories, "Quando Amelia si bella e candida", then again turning to hate, violence and death. He is a seasoned singer and it is hard to understand why he was not projecting. Hopefully his next performance will overcome any problems he may have been experiencing that particular night.

Perhaps he might have been also trying too hard to overcome the amazing power of the unusual soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky. Her upper range is distinguished by an incredible mastery of the most beautiful singing I have heard in a long time as she glides effortlessly from one note to another with elegance. The rafters were ringing with her glorious all embracing, commanding huge voice that she was also able to nuance into any shade of pianissimo along with a variety of colors. I am, however, speaking about her upper range!
Her middle and lower voice were a very different story. It almost seemed like another person singing. Except for her major aria "Morro ma prima in grazia". She was often uncomfortably under pitch, her diction was mostly garbled and although she engages a variety of colors in her expressive portrayal of Amelia, there appeared a vast demarcation between her upper and lower voice. Of course her unusual high notes will always distinguish her as a Diva but if she does not come back to her roots of a few years ago, when I heard her as a wonderfully integrated solid spinto with a delicious legato line throughout her range, she will never reach the role of "legendary".  It should theoretically have eventually become her rightful legacy.

The other singers were all actively managing their respective roles--------Dolora Zajick, a regular at the Met, distinguished the role of Ulrica with her usual flair. As the fortune teller, her mysterious prediction of the future was as good as it gets. This was reason enough to generously forgive any possible misgivings regarding her vocal delivery. Heidi Stober immediately established her presence with "Volta la terrea" in a routine that brought Broadway to the Met. A welcome  replacement for old style choruses that just stand there singing while staring into space. Her cleverly choreographed dance steps as Oscar, the king's page, presented a charming, lively personality with a lovely soubrette voice to match.  Later with, "Saper vorreste" she did a fine job of resisting Renato's quest to reveal the costume of Gustavo with her jovial "tra la la". Sam and Tom were both impressive conspirators as they joined the lottery for who would have the honorable revenge of assassinating the King. They were both well suited to their respective roles with good, solid vocal impressions.

The story of James Levine goes back many years when he literally transformed the Met orchestra from the average pedestrian Opéra orchestra it used to be into what is now probably, one of the most highly respected, if not THE best Opera Ensemble in the world. His expertise with Verdi was marked by his nuanced musical instincts, exposing the dichotomy between the violins' sweet simple melodies outlining Gustavo's carefree nature,  juxtaposed on the bass and cello's foreboding staccatos describing his ultimate fate. The fact that Levine has had some health issues together with having become a little older, have made him a target for retirement speculation. He seems, notwithstanding his need for a wheelchair at the podium, to be in full command with a thorough, insightful reading of the score. He is still the master conductor at the Met and this was a musically memorable performance of Un Ballo in Maschera.