A Touch of Genius – Sferisterio of Macerata’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera:  Sferisterio of Macerata   – Orchestra Regionale delle Marche Marchigiano , Chorus V Bellini, Salvadei (on-stage) Band Conductor: Daniele Callegari   22.7.2011 (JB)

Conductor: Daniele Callegari
Sets, Costumes and Staging: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Lighting: Sergio Rossi
Chorus Master: David Crescenzi
Choreographer: Roberto Maria Pizzuto
Orchestra Regionale delle Marche Marchigiano , Chorus V Bellini, Salvadei (on-stage) Band

Riccardo: Stefano Secco
Renato: Marco Di Felice
Amelia: Viktoria Chenska
Ulrica: Elisabetta Fiorillo
Oscar: Gladys Rossi

Picture © Alfredo Tabochini

Wit may seem an unlikely bedfellow of tragedy to anyone outside the specialism of John Donne’s poetry. Yet this is just what Verdi does so strikingly in Un Ballo in Maschera. Wit is used here to mean when words, images or music spark unexpected sense. (Think Wilde addressing an American customs official: I have nothing to declare but my genius.) Ballo fairly whirls us on our way with irrepressible smiles while grounding us in those thoroughgoing operatic dramas of jealousy, revenge and murder.

The trick is to be able to move as flawlessly as Verdi between one camp and the other. It takes all the intelligence and imagination of Pier Luigi Pizzi to do this. And for good measure, he shows himself Verdi’s equal in ingenuity too.

To lesser men, the stumbling block to opera production at Macerata’s Sferisterio is the immensely long wall which is the backdrop to the stage. Pizzi uses this as three giant screens onto which close-ups in black and white of the action on the stage are simultaneously filmed and projected. There is a striking and involving double effect: the screens have a nineteen-fifties feel to them while the same live action is rooted in the nineteenth century. Verdi himself could not have conceived of anything more appropriately cheeky. Verdi and Pizzi are involving us in conflicting but compatible reactions at the same time. For those who can do this there is a word: genius.

The chorus are seated at the two sides of the extremely wide stage and at appropriate moments – as though unable to contain themselves – burst in on the action. Another ingenious direction: this opens the action up as well as closing it down. And imagine what fun (read wit) the filmmaker-projectionists are having in all this!

Pizzi involved his chorus in his ideas miraculously. There was a genuine feeling of involvement in all they did, including fine singing, for which David Crescenzi must be thanked as Chorus Master. Their costumes (Pizzi again) were varied and fun (witty) without resorting to parody (vulgarity).

Picture © Alfredo Tabochini

This staging will live on in the minds of anyone lucky enough to see it. How many times have we suffered Ballo as second-rate pantomime? Moreover, the production is tailor-made to the eccentricities of the Sferisterio’s spaces: you are not going to be able to catch up with it at the Met or Covent Garden. Though even as I write this, I realise it would not be beyond the ingenuity of Pizzi to re-design it for those places.

Daniele Callegari paced the opera rather nicely and the Orchestra Regionale Delle Marche played well for him as they always do. Their leader, Michelangelo Mazza, gave a hauntingly beautiful account of the violin solos which lead up to the murder at the ball. It is all the more remarkable that the orchestra is a put-together ensemble largely for the duration of this festival. It was no fault of Daniele Callegari that he found himself in difficulties with some inadequate singers and was forced into granting them too many concessions.

The Wit Department of Ballo relies greatly on the role of Oscar to pull its punches. The part is so congenially conceived as to steal the show in memorable performances of those two sparkling songs – one at the beginning, the other at the end of the opera. Alas, Gladys Rossi had as much wit as a pint of ale that got left out in the sun for a week. Sorry, Miss Rossi.

After Macerata’s impressive performance of La Forza del Destino of last year (my review here) I was much looking forward to the young soprano, Teresa Romano’s Amelia in Ballo. It was not to be. It appears she was having technical trouble with her top notes (odd this: they were extremely secure in last year’s Forza) and in order to protect this young woman against the forces of nasty critics such as myself, Pizzi and Callegari had persuaded her to stand down and called in Viktoria Chenska.

Miss Chenska looked ravishingly beautiful – especially in the close-ups on the big screens – but she only arrived for the dress rehearsal and failed to settle in to the huge demands of Verdi’s long phrases. (That skill was something of a speciality of Romano’s last year.) Chenska improved as the show went on, though, and audiences at later performances may be luckier than I was.

Stefano Secco has both beauty of voice and phrase. His Riccardo brought back fond memories of a fine Carlo Bergonzi performance I once heard. Riccardo’s wit trades in irony and Secco was magic in his sensitive delivery of it. Lesser vocal actors disintegrate into cynicism here. Marco Di Felice was also completely in role as Renato. Elisabetta Fiorillo was so perfectly Ulrica that one was persuaded her voice was much better than it actually is.

Jack Buckley