Monday, 10 December 2012

Opera on Screen - The Met's Un Ballo in Maschera

I dithered about buying a ticket for this. My last try of a cinema relay of classical music was the Berlin Philharmonic performing Bruckner, where I felt that it just wasn't possible to achieve a sufficiently close approximation of the experience of hearing Bruckner live to make it satisfying. I also noticed that this production was directed by David Alden, whose work I do not generally care for. But in the end curiousity got the better of me, plus the fact that I want to support the Lincoln Odeon now that they've decided to bring in the Met Relays for the first time. Overall, I was very glad I went.

The sound worked much better for this than for the Berlin Philharmonic. Clearly you are never going to recreate the precise experience of live performance in a cinema but I actually thought they got pretty near it. There certainly wasn't any moment when I felt the sound was detrimental to my enjoyment of the music. I did wonder if one factor was the screening taking place in one of the small cinemas at the Odeon rather than the vast space we were in for the Berlin concert.

I also take my hat off to the Met's broadcast team. I'm not generally a fan of Deborah Voigt as a singer these days but she makes a good presenter for this – although inevitably some of the singers were more interesting to listen to than others. There was an additional treat in getting to hear Joyce DiDonato rehearsing for Maria Stuarda (to be broadcast in January), and an unintentionally hilarious interview with David Alden in which he insisted on all sorts of things about the production which I have to say were not very apparent to me.

Turning to the performance itself. Musically it was of a very high order. The stand out among the singers was Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Renato who was just a joy to listen to throughout. I don't think I've previously heard Marcelo Alvarez, who sang Gustavo. I've no idea whether the Royal Opera has hired him but on this showing they absolutely should do – I found him far more satisfying than Antonenko's Otello, though I daresay the parts cannot really be compared. Occasionally in the faster passages he didn't sound as completely secure, but these moments were few and far between. He's also a little bit in love with the old style grand operatic gesture. The women were less satisfactory, and I don't know whether this is a reflection of the fact that (as I saw a piece suggest last week) higher voices tend to come over less well in this format. Part of the problem for me was that Sondra Radvanoksy's Amelia reminded me of a decaying Royal (I couldn't quite think of precisely which decaying Royal) and I consequently couldn't quite see why Gustavo was so passionately in love with her. She had some beautiful moments, but overall I wanted a fuller, richer voice for the part. Stephanie Blythe gave a commanding performance as Ulrica – she's stronger in the lower part of the voice but was sufficiently dramatically convincing to carry over the slightly less satisfactory upper portions. Kathleen Kim's Oscar impressed me more than her Madame Mao which I heard from the Proms earlier in the year. She was especially fine in her Act Three number, but overall I do find her voice a bit small. In the pit Fabio Luisi kept things firing nicely.

And so we come to David Alden's production. This was ineffective rather than infuriating Alden. Visually it was a pretty spare setting (but with some nice art as a backdrop (a symbolic falling Icarus) and mirrors which kept it from being another entry in the boredom stakes. There were some odd costume decisions – anybody fool enough to go herb hunting in the sort of dress Amelia was got up in in Act Two deserves everything that comes to them, and I didn't feel that the chorus's yellow souwesters or Oscar's wings added much to the proceedings. But the real problems lay in Alden's movement of his personnel and fundamental interpretation. In his interview between Acts Two and Three, Alden implied that the whole thing may be taking place in Gustavo's mind. I'm not at all convinced this is a viable option, and in any case I don't think Alden had followed it through with sufficient conviction to make it work. Up to a point one can believe in a fantasy element when Gustavo is on stage, but it becomes problematic the moment he isn't, and it all rather fell apart with the assassination which seemed to be played completely straight. But the more serious problem for me was Alden's management of the Gustavo-Amelia meeting in Act Two. From then on to the end of the opera Gustavo insists on Amelia's innocence and the dramatic punch of the end of the opera really hinges on this. I'm afraid I didn't really believe in this innocence, and I found their kissing at the conclusion of their Act Two love duet a real problem. That duet also suffered from Alden's poor decisions with respect to movement – generally speaking this was another occasion when I just didn't think the way he positioned people in relation to each other on the stage was effective – and it was particularly problematic in terms of his use of the chorus who had several bouts of being given silly things to do.

But overall the musical performances, and the dramatic presence of the key principals was enough to outweigh Alden's ineffective ideas and make the evening a really enjoyable one. I've marked down DiDonato's Maria Stuarda as one to catch in January.

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