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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Opera Review: A Dream about the King of Sweden

The Met's new Un Ballo in Maschera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Nightmare and dreamscape: Marcelo Àlvarez and Sondra Radvanovsky duet in Un Ballo in Maschera.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new David Alden production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera draws inspiration from the films of Ingmar Bergman. This surreal show plays out the libretto's love triangle as a series of vivid dreams. Which begs the question: if the masked ball is only a dream, does the assassination actually take place?

The show-curtain and backdrop for most of the action is a huge, Raphaelite painting of Icarus falling from the sky. Acts I and II open with a main character (first Gustavo, then Amelia) asleep in an armchair--the action playing out as a dream of each character. In the final act, the show evolves into a consensual hallucination. The masked ball seems equally inspired by J.K. Rowling and The Seventh Seal, as death avatars (in formal wear with black wings and skull masks) skulk through the dancing, anticipating the opera's grim climax.

Given the singers playing the three legs of Verdi's love triangle (as heard on Monday night) it may not actually matter. Marcelo Àlvarez sang King Gustavo. The Argentinian tenor responded well to the spotlight, in a role that lay comfortably for his voice. In the early acts, he sounded relaxed and genial, with smoother tone than in years past. Signs of wear were apparent by the Act III Study Scene (one of the toughest parts of the score), but he sang the finale beautifully.

This summer, Sondra Radvanovsky was brought in as Amelia, taking over for the cancelled Karita Mattila. The American soprano has a powerful instrument with the right amount of spinto, but lacks the sweetness and innocence needed for Amelia. What she is good at is conveying terror, both of her near-affair with the King and her husband's rage. The singer was at her best in the Act II scena "Ecco l'orrido campio" and the passionate duet with Mr. Àlvarez that followed. She achieved real pathos in the third act, as she reacts to her husband's verbal abuse by begging to see their child one last time.

As Ballo winds on, it is Amelia's husband Renato who moves to the forefront of the action, turning from loyal underling to enraged spouse, and finally to knife-wielding assassin. The handsome Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky acts the part with a leonine grace, but the voice constricts when placed under real pressure. Mr. Hvorostovsky could be heard gulping for air between lines of "Eri tu," undermining the effect of this famous revenge aria.

In the opening prelude, the page Oscar (Kathleen Kim) plays Icarus, roaming the stage with white wings on her back. Ms. Kim is one of the finer voices on display here, although her smallish coloratura was sometimes lost against the orchestra. However, the soprano  Kim put her athletic coloratura soprano to good use in this part. She nearly stole the show in "Sapper voreste," the page's Act III showpiece.

This cast also benefits from the experience and presence of mezzo Dolora Zajick, who has embodied menacing dramatic mezzo parts in Verdi operas at the Met for nearly a quarter of a century. Ms. Zajick looked and sounded fit as the fortune-teller Ulrica, bringing an occult menace to the role. One did not miss the usual accoutrements and effects in "L'incanto non dessi turbare"--her voice was unearthly enough.

In Mr. Alden's version of the show, the two conspirators Horn (David Crawford) and Ribbing (Keith Miller)  are everywhere, popping out of the floor, bent on wreaking vengeance. (Why they want that revenge in the first place is dramatically irrelevant in Ballo, which fits the surreal nature of the proceedings.) Mr. Miller particularly sang with dark, noble tone as the odious Ribbing--he should someday graduate to Renato. The famous "laughing chorus" that closes Act II was light, lilting and full of acid, expertly conducted by Fabio Luisi.

This production follows the Live in HD-friendly trend of moving stage action forward and foregoing the enormous depths of the Met stage Designer Paul Steinberg (in his house debut) mounts the action on a steeply raked stage and walls that taper and close in. (The unit set is used for everything except Renato's apartment, which appears to be constructed from a fancy envelope. Black, white, gray and brown costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) alternate with an occasional splash of color.

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