United Kingdom Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera:: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Daniel Oren (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 13.01.2015 (RP)
Riccardo: Joseph Calleja
Amelia: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Renato: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Ulrica: Marianne Cornetti
Oscar: Lauren Fagan
Samuel: Anatoli Sivko
Tom: Jihoon Kim
Silvano: Samuel Dale Johnson
Minister of Justice: Samuel Sakker
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Director: Katharina Thoma
Set Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume Designer: Irina Bartels
Lighting Designer: Olaf Winter
Choreography: Lucy Burge
Chorus Master: Renato Balsadonna
The critics pretty much thrashed Katharina Thoma’s new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at its premiere on December 18, 2014. At the January 13, 2015, performance, the sixth of seven shows, I overheard snippets of conversation discussing the reviews. Some had feared the worst and almost opted not to come, but were surprised to be enjoying the performance. Others just expressed delight and deemed the critics to be wrong. The charming woman sitting next to me said that she can still in her mind see Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Renato Bruson standing on that stage in a long-ago production of Un Ballo, but made a second trip to London to see the current staging as the singing was so beautiful. A slim woman, she also dismissed all of the current fuss about singers’ body types.
Applying a standard that I and, for better or worse, other reviewers have adopted, there was nothing offensive about the production. The sets were handsome if a bit dark and dull. Eschewing both Stockholm and Boston, it would appear that the action was set in some Slavic country in or about 1914; a map of Europe on stage during the first act provided the date. Irina Bartels’ costumes were elegant and well designed. There were questionable bits of stage business. Did Renata really need to descend into a freshly dug grave in Act II? Why curtains have to rise, or set pieces move as they did during arias or as Renato lay dying, is more than I will ever know. Likewise the sailors taking their shirts off during the second scene of Act I during Ulrica’s séance did little to advance the action, but a chorus has to do something more than sing splendidly.
The Royal Opera assembled a starry cast for this production. It seemed a bit odd that three of the principals, Joseph Calleja as Riccardo, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, took a while to settle in vocally, considering how long this production has been running. Calleja has a wonderful, ringing tenor. He does make you sit up and take notice, but his high notes were a bit constricted. This was a compelling Riccardo, if not a noble one.
Monastryska was a solid Amelia, both vocally and physically. She exudes little warmth (although she was touching when bidding her son one final farewell in the final act), but her singing was quite beautiful and expressive. The soft passages in “Ma dall’arido stelodivulsa” were lovely. The Act II duet with Calleja was well sung, but there was little evidence of passion in either of them.
Hvorostovsky still cuts a dramatic figure on stage, but some of the velvet is off of that once lustrous voice. He was a particularly stiff and wooden Renato. It was hard to imagine that he and Riccardo were great friends, or frankly that he was much in love with his wife. He did however deliver a thrilling “Eri tu,” and became much more dramatically engaged once he set his mind on killing Riccardo and avenging his honor. This Riccardo seemed fixated on his honor.
Without a doubt the most complete characterization, both vocally and dramatically, was the Ulrica of Marianne Cornetti. Once again, the overheard snippets of conversation added credence to my view of things. This Ulrica brought to mind the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, and her prophesies took place within the context of a séance with a devote flock of society ladies in attendance. This was set in a rather small, wood paneled room which focused and heightened the drama. Was her hunchback accomplice necessary? I doubt it, but it did bring back fond memories of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
Three minor male roles were exceptionally well cast and sung. Anatoli Sivko was excellent as the sailor Silvano whose fortune comes true due to Riccardo’s noble gesture. Jihoon Kim and Samuel Dale Johnson also gave vivid performances as the two conspirators seeking Riccardo’s death. Lauren Fagan’s Oscar left little impression. A great Oscar can sometimes almost steal the show, but Fagan just did not have the voice to do so. Her character was a bit of a muddle too, but she is not to blame there. Let Oscar be Oscar, not a reworked Cherubino bedding young maids and looking desolate in military gear after Riccardo is assassinated.
Was this Un Ballo an unqualified triumph for the Royal Opera? Most certainly not, but it was a solid, if uninspired, staging, graced by some first-rate singing in one of Verdi’s most beautiful scores. Sold out houses and cheering audiences might suggest that the Royal Opera got more right than wrong.