The usual reason for a director to update the setting of a serious opera is to bring out the grim, contemporary darkness of the story.
The most interesting aspect of David Aldens disappointing, metaphor-laden new production of Verdis Ballo in Maschera, at the Metropolitan Opera, which will be broadcast Live in HD on Dec. 8 in Boise, is that he uses an early-20th-century setting and film noir imagery to emphasize not just the works darkness but also its strangeness.
For Verdi Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), which had its premiere in Rome in 1859, was a bold experiment in the mixing of styles.
Elements of the intensely emotional Italian opera idiom of the mid-19th century are juxtaposed with strands of lighter, wryly comic scenes common in French grand opera of the period. Verdi does not really reconcile these contrasting styles. Instead, more interestingly, he just allows them to coexist.
Alden embraces these stylistic contrasts. He brings a slightly surreal quality to the operas lighter elements, epitomized by the character of Oscar, the irreverent court page.
At the same time, he draws out the ambiguities and fickleness of the operas conflicted hero, Gustavo III, the king of Sweden, a willful and restless monarch bored with official duties, recklessly pursuing an affair with Amelia, the wife of his steadfast adviser and friend. Aided by the lithe, crisp conducting of Fabio Luisi, Alden makes the shifts seem deliberate choices of the supremely confident dramatist Verdi.
This production is best when subtle and character-driven, and Alden draws compelling performances from a strong cast, headed by tenor Marcelo Alvarez, as Gustavo, and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, as Amelia. But the overall mood and look of the production are obvious and glib, despite the sleek, abstract imagery of Paul Steinbergs sets and the handsome suits and dresses by costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, which suggest the color schemes of a black-and-white film.
As Verdi buffs know, he had trouble getting Antonio Sommas libretto for Un Ballo through the censors, who determined what could appear on an opera stage in Italy. Like many productions of Ballo these days, this one restores the initial Swedish setting of the libretto, which is loosely based on the historical King Gustavo, who was assassinated at a masked ball in Stockholm.
But with its film noir imagery, this Ballo could be in any early-20th-century locale.
The sets use intersecting and angular flat panels, sometimes with gray-on-gray flowered images, sometimes starkly white. For the final ballroom scene, in which the king is killed, the walls are lined with mirrors that send blinding shafts of light around the stage and into the house.
But the kings rooms are dominated by a huge, classical-style mural showing the mythological Icarus falling from the sky, after trying to fly with wings made of feathers and wax, only to have them melt when he got too close to the sun.
Ah, the king as Icarus. Get it?
He is a self-absorbed monarch who invites disaster by shirking the needs of underlings and romancing the wife of his trusted adviser Renato (who in this setting is Count Anckarstrom). Icarus as a metaphor is heavy-handed enough. But a configuration of that mural looms over every scene, no matter where it takes place, and you get tired of looking at it.
I wish Alden had stuck more closely to the film noir atmosphere, as he does effectively in the opening scene. During the prelude we see Gustavo dressed in a smoking jacket, looking discontented, sitting in a leather chair and sipping brandy, then dozing off. This image captures the mood of the music and gets at the kings character. The first lines sung by the courtiers (the Met choristers, sounding excellent, as usual) when they enter are to wish that the king be enlightened by beautiful dreams (though the conspirators among them mutter asides).
Alvarez, who has long boasted a major tenor voice, can be a blunt and inelegant singer and an indifferent actor. But Alden and Luisi do well by him. Alvarez sings with subtlety, shadings and soaring lyricism. Now and then he lunged at high notes, and the bottom of his range was weak. But this was one of his most dramatically charged and refined performances at the Met.
Karita Mattila, who was to have sung Amelia, withdrew in May. The assignment went to Radvanovsky, who was splendid. Her earthy texture and quick vibrato are not to all tastes. But her voice shimmers with emotion and carries excitingly over the orchestra. She is a compelling vocal artist who knows what she is doing and brings intensity and deep feeling to every phrase.
She was particularly moving in the scene in which her husband, here the charismatic baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, having discovered her in a rendezvous with the king, tells her to prepare to die. Confronting his wife, Hvorostovsky shook Radvanovsky by the shoulders, as if really ready to strangle her. But the next moment he nestled his head next to her face and kissed her, almost pleadingly, singing with his trademark dark sound and supple phrasing, which poignantly brought to life this suffering husbands love.
This was Aldens first time taking on an entire Met production. Just this summer I saw two of his productions elsewhere: a bold staging of Brittens Billy Budd at the English National Opera in London, and a handsome, vivid presentation of a Rossini rarity, Maometto II, at the Santa Fe Opera. In comparison, his Ballo comes across as much less assured, too reliant on the obvious. Something about the Met, with all its history and influence, has a way of throwing even internationally acclaimed directors off their game.