After our three-day jaunt to Paris, Simon and I returned to London, where we initially had no plans for music or theatre outings. But, through sheer serendipity (well, serendipity plus a considerable outlay of cash), I made it to Un Ballo in Maschera – the production prima! – at Covent Garden. The show had been all but sold out, with only partial view seats remaining. At the last-minute, I checked at the box office, and sure enough, one premium ticket had been returned.
I didn’t have to think about it long. Ballo is a favorite opera, and the cast included two singers – Joseph Calleja, and Liudmyla Monastyrska – I hadn’t yet heard live, and wanted to. Also (this was really the kicker) – in nearly 20 trips to London, I’d never made it to Covent Garden.
So, a word about the theatre first. It truly is the jewel box I’d hoped it would be – definitely a grand opera house, but nearly 1,500 fewer seats than the Met, a difference that figures significantly in how voices carry. (I’m not certain, for example, whether Calleja would have made the same impact with this kind of Verdi orchestration in a much larger hall.) Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had a nearly ideal vantage point. (The photo above gives you come indication – it was taken from my seat.)
In some moods, Ballo is my favorite Verdi opera – a late-middle period work that captures both the tunefulness and brio of his earlier operas, and also heralds the longer, more narrative style that comes later. In addition to knockout, character-rooted arias for all five principals, Ballo has exceptional orchestral music (I especially love the Act II prelude) that can make it a conductor’s opera (here, that was Daniel Oren).
It’s also potentially interesting dramatically, though its rocky creation famously included censors demanding many changes, forcing Verdi to rethink the setting and some historical details.
Here, director Katharina Thoma resets the action yet again – to sometime between the fin-de-siècle, and the beginning of World War I. The assassination of Franz-Ferdinand is a specific influence – Riccardo is sometimes costumed very similarly. In Thoma’s view – which seems also to nod at Freud – a kind of hysterical foreboding of death is omnipresent. During the opening prelude, a graveyard is visible on stage. She also pitches some of Ballo as a kind of dark comedy.
Most of the London reviews I read were dismissive (and many pointed out they also hadn’t liked her Ariadne at Glyndebourne, a year or two before).
My reaction was more mixed. There are some genuinely intriguing ideas here, and the best of the production plays out as a Schnitzlerian dreamscape, ripe with symbolic weight.
But the worst of it – the graveyard statues coming to life, for instance – is straight out of Disneyland’s haunted house ride. Worse, Thoma seems to lack a basic sense of stagecraft. Blocking is awkward and often ugly. She makes rookie mistakes – during Act II, a young child is seen in a background room, drawing focus away from pivotal moments, including “Eri tu.” And while it’s sort of amusing to treat Ulrica as camp, she musn’t be a charlatan – after all, at least one of her prophecies turns out to be correct. On the basis of this – and the Ariadne, which I saw on video – I’d say Thoma is a gifted director who has been prematurely thrust into top-tier assignments.
Musically, things were considerably stronger. For my money, Calleja was the evening’s hero. It’s a gorgeously plush, easy sound, and he has scrupulously worked out every detail of score. I’d have to go back to the young Pavarotti or even Bergonzi to think of a tenor with this kind of Mediterranean sunshine in the tone.
Calleja also has natural affinity for the stage – he looks comfortable, even happy to be there. This is not the same thing as acting, really – I’m not sure he creates a character, or really explores the emotional subtext – but this kind of charisma with an audience is a million dollar gift.
Liudmyla Monastyrska could use a dose of it. She’s an opaque, charm-free performer, and a practitioner of what a New York theatre friend of mine calls “private acting.” Monastyrska’s saving grace is a blue-chip vocal instrument of genuine amplitude – thrilling at the top at full-volume, but also capable of softness. But I wouldn’t say she’s an artist, nor even that she’s in total command of her voice. Low notes were often coarse, even ugly, and she doesn’t phrase with elegance.
If there was an audience favorite, it was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who (good for him!) sounds nearly as lustrous and virile as he did when he won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, 25 years ago. Here, though, he seemed oddly disengaged, almost phoning it in. And this role really wants a density of tone that isn’t quite his – there was audible effort as he tried to fill out the climactic moments.
Marianne Cornetti has the range extremes needed for Ulrica – it’s a big sound at the top and bottom – but not quite the Italianità. It was the opposite situation for Serena Gamberoni as Oscar – she’s always lively and on the words, and in some ways recalls Italian light lyric sopranos from the 1940s and ‘50s (unfortunately, recalling them also in not quite having the sparkle for Oscar’s music).
Daniel Oren conducted with a sense of forward momentum, but he also knows how to let up on the reins when it’s needed. I’ve heard more brilliant readings of the Act II prologue (Fritz Busch is unforgettable here), but this was fine work.
So… more good than bad, and – in Calleja – often magical. I’d rank my first trip to Covent Garden as a success, and I’m so glad I got there!