By Francisco Salazar
(for November 27, 2012 performance)
Over the last few weeks since the Met premiered it's new Un Ballo in Maschera I have heard wonders about how amazing David Alden was as a director. Therefore I went into last night's performance of the Verdi work with high expectations. The result was no where near it. What I saw was a travesty trying to take it self seriously.
The Met opened its season to a new production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore that elicited boredom because it tried to take the light-hearted work as a drama and ultimately failed to do so. David Alden attempted the opposite. He tried to treat Verdi's dramatic work Un Ballo in Maschera as an operetta but ultimately made the work numb of any drama. Yes Verdi's work has some comic elements but so do many other dramas such Adriana Lecouvreuer and Il Tabarro. I don't mean to compare these minor works to Verdi's masterpiece but no one ever attempted to approach these as operettas. The comparison of Verdi to operetta is an incredibly pretentious analysis because the title Un Ballo in Maschera does not only pertain to the final act, it pertains to the complete opera as every character hides behind a mask. The music equally demonstrates this with its sarcasm. The finale to the first scene is music of a cynical king who takes Ulrica as a joke. The act 2 conspirator chorus couldn't be more sarcastic and Gustavo's "Scherzo di folie" could be interpreted as a fearful king trying to calm his people down and trying to ignore what Ulrica has told him of his impending death. The Masked Ball is probably the only place where the music can be taken lightheartedly but in that circumstance David Alden does the opposite; he gives us a demonic dance that with a rugged and laughable choreography.
So where does Mr. Alden go wrong? Everywhere. From the start of the opera we see a chair left downstage and a huge curtain with the picture of a fallen Icarus. The curtain goes up and we see a smaller image of the same Icarus curtain. Except this time it represents the ceiling of the room in a slanted position. The side walls are all made of metallic colors. Gustavo played by Marcelo Alvarez enters the room and starts walking around aimlessly. Then Oscar comes in with angel wings following him around aimlessly as well. I think Mr. Alden attempted to follow Willy Decker's La Traviata production because in that production Dr. Grenval represents death and Grenval always follows Violetta around. However that production makes the focus clear from the start. Oscar's wings in this case only elicit laughter and one is confused as to why Oscar is an Angel figure. Once the prelude concludes Gustavo walks out and the Chorus in their detective overcoats and suits walk in from upstage. In order for them to do so the ceiling must rise up and then go back down. This happens everything single time someone wants to go into the stage and the ploy annoys after the third time. It is as if Mr. Alden decided that the Met stage had no other stage doors. But I diverge. The chorus enter the stage and stand around waiting for Gustavo. Then Oscar played by Kathleen Kim enters with a cigarette and a mustache. The cigarette of course adds nothing interesting to his character. The king then enters the stage and then comes and sings his aria. A bunch of tables enter the stage and the chorus starts stamping papers with no direction. During Oscar's aria the chorus starts miming nonsense and butlers come in with drinks that never go to any of the chorus members. Then during the final chorus where Gustavo tells his men that he will dress as a fisherman to see who Ulrica is, Gustavo starts to dance a Can Can with Oscar and the Chorus follows; except the Chorus does not follow immediately. They stand around the desks trying to figure out why Gustavo is dancing. They seem lost and when they finally start to dance the choreography is messy and half the stage looks empty and misused.
But it only gets worse as the second scene starts. Ulrica played by Stephanie Blythe enters the stage looking lost and uncomfortable. Is this her den, or is this Gustavo's office? Where are we? Alden never clarifies. She fidgets with cigarettes, a purse, makeup, cards and stands on tables. But ultimately who Ulrica is no one really knows because Mr. Alden does not understand her either. The chorus also looks possessed and fight over a prostitute who has no place in the scene. When Gustavo enters he runs around like a fool bringing to mind Falstaff. The ensuing trio with Amelia who enters desperately looking for Ulrica to help her take Gustavo off her mind was also poorly staged. Ms. Radvanovsky plopped herself on a chair she gets from upstage as if she was being punished then takes a skull from Ulrica and then gives it back and leaves. Meanwhile Gustavo sits on his chair which remained on stage for no apparent reason. Once Gustavo decided to have his fortune told he sings his "scherzo di folie" and starts throwing cards all over the floor while his men dressed in raincoats and carrying umbrellas dance a Broadway number. I was reminded of "Singing in the Rain" except, that "Singing in the Rain" is a comedy and Verdi's work is a drama. The finale of that scene which is a triumphant praise to the king looked silly as well. The chorus walked as if they were possessed by a demon and started walking like zombies from a George Romero film. The king runs away from them and sits on his chair and the chorus honors a clay statue making the scene another degrading affair.
The set for act 2 looked like drab. The picture of Icarus remained for no apparent reason, the tombs were just tiles removed from the set creating black holes and Gustavo's seat was now upstage with Amelia sitting there. When the scene begins Amelia gets up puts a veil on and then walks as if she is drunk and then takes off the veil for no apparent reason. I was reminded of Mary Zimmerman's staging of Lucia's Mad scene. Amelia then sings her aria on the floor (more on that later) then Gustavo comes in and they sing their duet. During the duet Alden chooses the most climatic moment of the duet to make comic. When Amelia says "T'Amo" (She loves Gustavo) Gustavo faces the Icarus picture and raises his hand as if he were a magician. The Icarus picture goes up and the background becomes trees. At that moment I thought some amazing imagery or lighting effect would show up but the ultimate effect was disappointing. The trio then happens with no real staging or anything worthy of note. And then the conspirators chorus occurs with some of the chorus members taking the seat out of the stage. For some reason or another Alden thought it was clever to have Horn and Ribbing come out of the tombs. But that makes no sense because if they were in the tombs why would they not have captured the king when he was alone and why on earth would Amelia not have realized especially when she took a plant out of the tomb. But it all comes down to Alden not understanding his concept. Then during this scene the chorus decided to take out binoculars for no apparent reason. Once the chorus walked out Ankarstrom played by Dimtri Hvorostovsky walked up to Amelia who screamed as if she had just seen a ghost and took by her hair as if she was a little girl crying for help. That only elicited laughter from audience.
David Alden then decided to abandon his concept by putting Act 3 in a small little box with white walls, another chair, and a picture of Gustavo. In this little box everyone seemed restricted and the ceiling was again slanted. As a result every single time someone had to go in and out, the ceiling had to go up and down again. When Amelia and Ankarstrum enter they have their confrontation which is played out as usual but it gets repetitive as Ankarstrum throws a sword twice, the picture of Gustavo and then Amelia's shawl. And when the conspirators enter the scene they scribble over Gustavo's picture like children, Ankarstrom puts a skull mask as if he were the devil and Oscar who enters with a cigarette brings candles that never go anywhere. Not mention during a dramatic quartet Horn throws papers all over the stage with no dramatic purpose.
Finally Act four is another mishmash. Gustavo sings his aria walking around and staring at Icarus aimlessly. The final scene of the opera staged with glass walls trying to create the illusion of palace walls and while the picture of Icarus flies away, Alden decides to bring a cutout of the fallen Icarus. The chorus comes in and dances a demonic choreography as Oscar sings his aria. Oscar decides to dance as if she was robot or a doll. The proceedings are much too distracting to pay any attention to Oscar who is picked up by Ankarstrom trying to finding out what Gustavo is wearing to kill him. Ankarstrom throws Oscar on the famous chair and seems like he is about to hit the boy. Meanwhile the chorus dance a rugged choreography, the conspirators have sex with the guests and the butlers dance around the chair to finally take it out of the staging for the night. I don't criticize Alden for trying to make the party engaging, noisy, riotous on stage because after all parties are never organized affairs. But what I don't like is the fact that he distracts with his demon costumes, Oscar's Angel wings, and sexual insinuations. Each character becomes even more unlikable in this scene. Once Gustavo enters the room to sing his duet with Amelia, the chorus goes upstage taking a back seat as Amelia and Gustavo take center stage. This probably the most honest moment in the whole staging because he does not create any distractions and instead allows the singers to do their jobs. However, once he is stabbed the chorus comes downstage, then go back upstage, Gustavo gets up and walks with them downstage. And once he dies the chorus walks back upstage. What is the point of all this walking up and down the stage? It ultimately makes the final scene feel superfluous and lacking in any real drama.
The outcome is a laughable and nonsensical production which never makes any coherent sense. The Icarus symbol seemed imposed rather than genuine, the angels versus demons were incomprehensible and the chair that was thrown in every scene ultimately making the work nauseating. Finally, Alden always has some type of movement in each scene that distracted from any genuine emotions and seemed forced upon the audience. Just because a director has movement on stage does mean it is theatrical. It can be if done well but ultimately Mr. Alden who may have a great career in Europe, has brought his worst traits to the Met.
But so much on the production, that I haven't been able to talk about the singers. For last night's cast the Met assembled what they believe to be the best Verdi singers of today. Marcelo Alvarez sang the role of Gustavo with difficulty and awkwardness. Alvarez who started as a lyric tenor has quickly grown into the spinto tenor repertoire. Except he naturally possesses a lyric voice with a big sound. As a result every time Mr. Alvarez has to sing any high notes, or low notes they sound choppy and forced. From his opening aria "La Rivedro" Alvarez started with a tender sound but quickly lost it when he cut his phrases in order to hit the high notes. Then when he sang his "Di tu se fedele" in act one scene 2, Verdi asks the tenor to go from one extreme to the other. Right before Alvarez sang his high note he took a breath not written in, hit the high note awkwardly and then took another break and sang his lower notes which sounded as if they were forced. His lower range had no ring, no color and absolutely no volume. During his "Scherzo di folie" Mr. Alvarez sang nicely but once again he had choppy phrases and no delicacy with any of the music. In Act 2 Alvarez fared better but it was too late at this point because after listening to him for an hour any flaw stood out more than his good singing. During the duet "Teco io sto," Alvarez caressed each phrase with tenderness except during the climactic moment, Alvarez sang his "T'Amo" with force trying to impose his feelings on his audience. Except they did not feel genuine. His last aria "Ma se me forza perderti" The tenor attacked the aria as if he was going to war or to a battle. Each phrase was more choppy as the aria progressed and at the end Alvarez once again forced his emotions through his voice. He had no luck in the acting department either . In the opening numbers he danced with enthusiasm, threw cards all over the floor, stood on chairs and tables, but ultimately looked like a clown without control. There was one instance where I thought less is more and more is less. In other words I would have preferred more parking and barking from him and maybe that would have made his singing much better. Ultimately Alvarez made his character an unlikable fool.
Sondra Radvanovsky fared better but not by much. Her opening trio showed some insecurity but eventually warmed up to a climactic B natural. Her first aria "Ecco l'arido Campo" Radvanovsky showed off her powerful sound as she lied down on the floor as if she was a mad woman. During her opening bars she gave the sounds of a scared woman but as the aria progressed her assurance and character came out with bright crescendo and soaring high notes. However Alden did not allow Radvanovsky to show her true emotions because he had her lie down on the floor, then kneel and crawl on the floor as if she were Lucia or Amina from la Sonnanbula, and then finally he makes her throw a branch from one tomb to another. I thought Amelia was supposed to make a drink out of the plant not throw it. In any case, her second aria "Morro, Ma prima grazia" was a show stopper as she lied down on the floor pleading with her husband to have her son back. Radvanovsky showed her vulnerability as she sang each line with delicacy and fragility. Her high C was a clean cry for help. It was a shame though that her singing was not matched with her acting because once again Alden makes Amelia lie down on the floor taking away her dignity and then makes her get back up and then kneel down. She moves so match that he distracts from the text and ultimately fails to bring the raw emotion that Radvanovsky brings to the role. During her ensembles Radvanovsky brought her huge voice singing each line with vibrancy especially during "Teco Io Sto" where she moved little allowing the audience to ultimately feel that Amelia was truly in love with Gustavo. While Radvanovsky sang the part with fervor and passion, she ultimately looked like she was portraying a mad woman.
Stephanie Blythe could never get into character as she assumed the role of Ulrica for the first time this season replacing Dolora Zajick. Blythe entered the stage lost confused and dazed trying to figure out if this was Ulrica's den. Blythe however was able to bring her power and force to her chilling aria, "Re dell'abisso." Unfortunately I was never able to understand what spirits she was evoking while she singing. The only spirits that were evident seemed to be the miscued or awkward lighting effects. Blythe also looked uncomfortable as she fidgeted with her purse, and cards and then when she stood on a table she looked stilted. Still Ms. Blythe gave a riveting vocal performance and I wish she would have been more on stage.
Kathleen Kim sang Oscar the page with a sweet voice coloratura. She was covered during most of the ensembles and it was most likely because she was frolicking way too much and paying less attention to the music. Keith Miller sang Ribbing while David Crawford sang Horn as the conspirators. They sang with good imposing tones.
Fabio Luisi conducted the Met Orchestra with power and delicacy. His tempi were again swift and moved the action forward. He led the chorus which was also solid to a dramatically memorable crescendo as Gustavo dies.
Ultimately however Alden's production got in the way and did not allow the singers to genuine characters. The response from the audience was to walk out of the theater after the first act making for a half empty house and making for one of the worst nights at the opera in recent memory.