United States Verdi, Un ballo in maschera: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera, New York / James Levine (conductor). Performance of 26.1.1991, reviewed as a Nightly Met Opera Stream on 20.8.2020. (RP)
Sets, costumes & lighting – Piero Faggioni
Chorus master – John Keenan
Video director – Brian Large
Gustavo – Luciano Pavarotti
Renato – Leo Nucci
Amelia – Aprile Millo
Ulrica – Florence Quivar
Oscar – Harolyn Blackwell
Christiani – Gordon Hawkins
Horn – Terry Cook
Ribbing – Jeffrey Wells
Judge – Charles Anthony
Amelia’s servant – Richard Fracker
There were nights when the Met got everything right. This was one of them and, from a 2020 perspective, more than anyone could have then envisioned. Piero Faggioni was dismissed as a Franco Zeffirelli wannabe with his realistic, luxurious, expansive and, yes, busy set and staging for this production that premiered in 1990. For the bridge-and-tunnel types, of which I have always been one (Pennsylvania and then New Jersey), lavish sets and international stars were what drew us to the Met. The alternative, rewarding as it may have been, was our regular fare.
Faggioni’s excesses were reigned in a tad by the time this performance was televised. What was deemed over the top, however, emerged on film as attention to detail, expertly crafted costumes, masterful makeup and remarkable characterizations by cast and chorus alike.
Indeed, there was glamour. Jewels sparkled in Aprile Millo’s remarkable blond coif, while Luciano Pavarotti’s blue velvet cape trimmed in ermine seemed to engulf most of the stage. Even Florence Quivar’s Ulrica got a bit of glitter, as if the massive cape (was it reeds, animal skins or both?) with a necklace of teeth and claws wasn’t attention grabbing enough. The old crones that watched Ulrica’s incantations and prophecies seemed to have stepped out from a Neapolitan creche.
One of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard – ‘We had faces!’ – kept running through my mind. Millo and Pavarotti, in particular, didn’t need to move to command attention. Voice and presence alone sufficed.
The cameras didn’t linger on the sets, but a quick scan of the scenery – the ornate interiors of the Swedish royal palace, a massive foundry with flames and belching smoke, gallows on a desolate rocky hill – fixed the action in time and place. Faggioni knew how to costume a large framed person, and Brian Large and his camera team likewise flattered them with their toolbox of skills and artistry.
Of the four principals, only Millo and Pavarotti were holdovers from the premiere. For this performance, Juan Pons as Renato was replaced by Leo Nucci, and Quivar had taken over the role of Ulrica from Elena Obraztsova. I definitely saw the production when it was new, but not this cast. It was a night that I would have remembered.
The performance captured Pavarotti, who was 55 at the time, in fine form. The distinctive quality of his voice and thrilling high notes were on full display. Never the most compelling of actors, by this stage of his career the tenor’s imposing physical appearance and charisma generally carried the day, as it did here. He was a serious Gustavo, but a twinkle in his eyes and a mischievous grin flashed during the concluding Act II chorus revealed the lightness and charm that he could conjure up. At the end of the duet that preceded it, he nuzzled Millo’s hair as if intoxicated by her scent as the audience went wild and she bathed in the applause. This was the adorable, playful, sensual Pavarotti that won hearts.
Aprile Millo, discovered by James Levine when she was 22, was a child of the Met, which was her artistic home. Her dark spinto soprano lent itself to Verdi heroines, and she placed herself firmly in the tradition of the great twentieth-century divas who had carried that torch. What some found mannered in her approach, others found inspired and a direct link to an earlier golden age of opera. She had a cult following that was out in force here, and their expectations were met and perhaps exceeded: this was a night when she did indeed summon the magic of the past.
Remarkable as it may sound, Leo Nucci only retired from the stage last year. Until then, the beloved Italian baritone continued to perform a few Verdi roles, most notably Rigoletto, in opera houses throughout Europe. But for the pandemic, he undoubtedly would have returned to the stage somehow, somewhere. Here in his prime, the beauty of his voice, his command of text and elegant legato stood out. As with Millo and Pavarotti, not only Nucci’s voice but a mere glance could stun.
The diversity of this cast, if not the chorus and orchestra, came as a reminder that the Met was not as hidebound and conservative an institution as one might think. Several young African-American singers, all of whom have had international careers, were in the cast. This in no way diminishes the challenges that singers that singers of color continue to face, but not all that came before was rotten.
Florence Quivar surely felt the weight of history when she sang Ulrica. In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African-American singer to perform at the Met in the same role. Charles Anthony, who holds the record for the most performances in the house (2,928), sang the role of the Judge then as he did here. Unlike Anderson, Quiver was at the height of her vocal powers when she stepped onto the Met stage.
Harolyn Blackwell’s performances of Oscar in this production made Met audiences and critics alike take notice. Her pure and sparkling lyric coloratura coupled with boundless energy and physical agility enlivened every scene in which she appeared. Baritone Gordon Hawkins as Christiani and bass Terry Cook as Horn, still active as performers today, were also in the cast.
The second runner up in number of Met performances is James Levine (2,577), who conducted this performance with his customary attention to detail, dynamics and orchestral color. It was the energy that made this performance so exciting, but he did have a quite a cast with which to work.
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