A Magnificent Ballo in Maschera Led by Zubin Mehta

GermanyGermany Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera: Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Chorus, Zubin Mehta (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 28.3.2016. (JMI)

 Credit: Bayerische Staatsoper

Credit: Bayerische Staatsoper

New Production:
Direction: Johannes Erath
Sets: Heike Scheele
Costumes: Gesine Völlm
Lighting: Joachim Klein

Riccardo: Piotr Beczala
Amelia: Anna Pirozzi
Renato: George Petean
Ulrica: Okka von der Damerau
Oscar: Sofia Fomina
Silvano: Andrea Borghini
Samuel: Anatoli Sivko
Tom: Scott Conner
Judge: Ulrich Ress

This performance was the main reason for my trip to Munich: it was to feature Zubin Mehta on the podium and Piotr Beczała and Anja Harteros on stage. The previous day in Munich, there had been a cancellation in Lohengrin, and the same occurred here: not just any cancellation but no less than that of Anja Harteros. The performance was still brilliant, but I do wonder what it could have been with Anja Harteros in top form.

I saw this new production by Johannes Erath in an internet stream a few days ago and found it most disconcerting. I doubt very much that a spectator who does not understand Italian and is not familiar with the plot would understand what is happening on stage.

The action has been moved to the 1920s in a black-and-white setting. There’s just one set for the entire opera, with a large bed in the center and a huge staircase leading up to an exit on the top floor. Everything takes place in this room. In the first scene, the Count is in bed, where he receives his people. Ulrica’s scene is more of the same, with no one in disguise except for a doll dressed as fisherman. The “Orrido campo” is here, with Amelia and Renato in bed; Riccardo appears to sing his duet with Amelia while Renato is sleeping. Renato’s house is the same room, and the couple are still in pyjamas, while the masked ball, supposed to be splendidissimo, is not, with no one in costume. One doesn’t know if Riccardo really is killed, because he climbs the stairs, following a mute Ulrica, as if going to heaven.

It is all completely absurd. During the performance this has led me to think that perhaps the director means it to be a dream-like production, where the action is but a nightmare of Riccardo’s, obsessed by his love for Amelia. If this interpretation is correct, the production makes sense and the unique setting is well suited, with the action in black and white as a good complement. I prefer to hold on to this interpretation, which is what kept me interested in what was happening on stage. Otherwise, everything would be totally ridiculous.

Zubin Mehta’s conducting was magnificent. Everything was in the right place and we enjoyed a great reading of the score, both in the intimate moments and in the most dramatic ones: Mr. Mehta knows how to conduct both perfectly. When one is fortunate to see Zubin Mehta on the podium, one recognizes the great importance of the conductor in opera. He had an excellent rapport and complicity with his old orchestra, and the performance from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester proved that it is one of the best pit groups – if not the best in absolute terms – today. The chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper was also terrific.

Piotr Beczała as Riccardo is in a particularly sweet moment. The beauty of his voice is undisputed, as is his elegant singing: I dare say he is the most elegant singer I’ve heard since Alfredo Kraus. Beczała is better suited to the second part of the opera than to the first, more lyrical one. All this seems to indicate that in a couple of months we will be able to enjoy his much anticipated Lohengrin in Dresden with Anna Netrebko, under Christian Thielemann.

Anja Harteros was replaced by Neapolitan Anna Pirozzi, a fine choice as a substitute. She did not make me forget Anja Harteros, but she offered an appealing performance as Amelia, with a wide and well-suited voice, although her top notes were always in forte. It was her debut in Munich, and for sure she’ll be back.

The other replacement, although this had been announced earlier, was that of Simon Keenlyside as Renato. In his place we had Romanian baritone George Petean, whom I found more modest than expected. His middle range is good, but he is tight at the top and almost empty down below. Renato’s character needs more than what he offered.

Mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau did well as Ulrica, although she is not the contralto that the character requires. She moves easily on stage, and her character gains in importance in this production. Ulrica is on stage in many scenes of the opera, bringing to mind Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.

Russian soprano Sofia Fomina was an outstanding Oscar. She is one of the most interesting light sopranos for this kind of character. Her voice is attractive, she is an excellent actress, has no problem in agilities and is a superb singer. She is a soprano to follow very closely.

In the secondary characters Andrea Borghini did well as Silvano. Anatoli Sivko (Sam) and Scott Conner (Tom) were also well-suited to their roles.

José M. Irurzun

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