Backward Ballo

19 Dec

The ROH isn’t having a great start to the season.  One or two good revivals can’t overcome three pretty ropey new productions, the latest of which is the Ballo in maschera which I saw at its first night on 18th December.  It was really distressing to see the waste of some very fine singers who were flung into a staging that would have been pretty risible in the 1950s.

I’m fond of Ballo. I find the music hugely attractive and exciting and there is an expansiveness about the plot that avoids the breathlessness of some of earlier operas but without the sprawl of Vepres and Forza. The difficulty about it is reconciling the light, almost Sullivan-ish music (I find the Renato/Amelia/Riccardo trio in Act II almost a parody, irrestibly reminiscent of “Oh agony, rage, despair” from the Sorcerer) with the seriousness of the plot. It actually needs a black, sardonic edge to it and the theatrical ability to match the lightness with the tragedy.  And Katherina Thoma’s new production completely failed.

Thoma sets it in some pre-WWI central European state with mock gothic doors and a mock gothic cemetery in the background – lots of large tombs. It’s quite a sparse set, reminding me, unhelpfully, of Act II of Pirates of Penzance and looks cheap, under-populated and old-fashioned. Ulrica’s house is a smart home where fashionable women come for a seance and Renato’s is an almost Ibsenish official’s house. he cemetery for Act II (not the gallows) has large tombs with statues which come to life and wander about at significant moments. They look very silly. Thoma also seems unwilling to leave characters alone. So the love duet has those characters wandering around, Amelia’s Act III aria is upstaged by Renato going to see his son. She gets her own back by doing the same for Eri tu. There’s a scrim which goes up and down irritatingly.  They use the Boston version, for what it’s worth, so the surtitles say that Riccardo will send Renato “home” rather than to “Inghilterra”.  You just despair, really.

Worst of all is the complete lack of direction of what should have been a really good cast.  There’s no sense that any of them really care about any of the others, nothing binding the piece together or suggesting why we should be interested in what’s going on.  After her rather good Glyndebourne Ariadne, it’s a huge disappointment – a boring, unhelpful undramatic, cheap little show.

Vocally, Joseph Calleja strikes me as an ideal Riccardo. His voice fits the role well and his warm tone and expressive, very elegant singing gave me a lot of pleasure. He sang it easily and fluently but, frankly, it might have been anything. Ludmyla Monastyrska more than fulfilled the promise of her Abigaille the other year. This was full-throated, fearless, passionate singing, confident but with a delicacy and fervour that makes her one of my favourite Verdi sopranos. Of the ones I know today, only Sondra Rodvanovska strikes me as being in the same league.  I just wish that she’d had the direction to help her get the passion and intensity that the role needs.

And there was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, singing firmly, fluently and really beautifully, giving us an opportunity to hear some really classy Verdi singing. Again, I can’t think of many baritones I’d rather hear. He gave us his standard Renato and it would be nice to see him challenged and made to act a bit more.  Marianne Cornetti was a strong Ulrica, catching the vigour and slight madness of the character. Serena Gamberoni was a light, enjoyable Oscar and the Sam and Tom struck me as fine.

Of course, I don’t just blame Thoma for the dreariness of the evening and the lack of engagement with the people onstage.  I’ve never really enjoyed a performance that I’ve heard Daniel Oren conduct and I’m always mystified by the regularity with which he seems to turn up in the pit here.  This wasn’t as mind-numbingly slow and downright horrible as that Sonnambula a few years ago, but you really didn’t feel that you were listening to a great Verdi conductor.  There was no sense of architecture and he mistook volume for drama.  There was a pretty serious chorus error in Act III and it was hard to sense much engagement between him and the singers.  I really don’t understand why he’s invited here so often.  I’m always mystified by the regularity that he turn up in the pit here. I suppose his conducting about reached the level of the production.

When Mr Pappano arrived at the Royal Opera House, he indicated that he was taking complete artistic responsibility.  Presumably that applies even to things he doesn’t conduct.  Did he really think that this ordinary, provincial performanec was what either the singers or the audience deserved?

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