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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un Ballo in maschera – Melodramma in three acts (1859) [139.15]
Riccardo – Piotr Beczała
Renato – George Petean
Amelia – Anja Harteros
Ulrica – Okka von der Damerau
Oscar – Sofia Fomina
Silvano – Andrea Borghini
Samuel – Anatoli Sivko
Tom – Scott Conner
A Judge – Ulrich Reß
Amelia’s servant – Joshua Owen Mills
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Sören Eckhoff (chorus master)
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Zubin Mehta
Stage Director – Johannes Erath
rec. live and rehearsal, 3-9 March 2016 Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich
C MAJOR 739504 Blu-ray [149.11]

Budgets rarely allow traditional stagings of operas with lavish sets these days. It seems that Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) which I consider a masterpiece has been subjected to more than its fair share of directorial imagination over the years. On the C Major label this new 2016 Bayerische Staatsoper production by Johannes Erath had a mixed reception directorially but it contains some outstanding performances notably from Piotr Beczała and Anja Harteros. Erath displays his fertile and detailed imagination with this staging, one that rewards greatly with repeated plays.

Using a fair degree of poetic licence Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma based his Italian text on Eugène Scribe’s Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué for Daniel Auber’s five act opera. An amalgam of French grand opera and cutting edge aspects of Italian opera Un Ballo in maschera is a most engaging scenario where contrasts abound in the interaction between blitheness and dark acts, and the contradicting character of wry humour and tragedy. Fascinating is the scope of elements including disguise and mistaken identity, unrequited love, sorcery and a chilling prophecy, loyalty before passion, and political conspiracy leading to regicide.
Un Ballo in maschera like many of Verdi’s operas did not have an easy performance pathway. Commissioned in 1857 by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Verdi was inspired by the true life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was murdered in 1792 by Count Anckarström a military captain, backed by fellow political conspirators including Counts Horn and Ribbing, at a masquerade ball. Legal difficulties arose following objections raised by Neapolitan censors to a monarch and his subsequent assassination being portrayed on stage. Problems occurred too for proposals to stage the opera in Rome and as a result the action was switched from Sweden to Boston, Massachusetts in the British colonial era while the historical figure Gustavo, King of Sweden became the fictitious Riccardo, Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston. Finally Un Ballo in maschera was given its première performance at Teatro Apollo, Rome in 1859 and was a great success. In recent times some stagings, including a revival of the production first given by the late director Götz Friedrich at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1993 that I saw in 2016, have reinstated the original Swedish setting and characters’ names. Certainly the main character being a monarch can give the story more dramatic impact. Conversely a Blu-ray that I relished viewing of a 2005 Oper Leipzig staging by Ermanno Olmi with a mainly Italian cast employed characters from the Boston setting but oh, those frightful clothes.

Director Johannes Erath also uses the Boston names and has brought the action forward to the fashionable 1920’s to an indistinct location. It’s a reasonably challenging staging in terms of the sometimes hard to understand intentions especially as I haven’t seen a directorial note. With the opera historical exactness didn’t seem foremost in Verdi’s mind and the historical context, whether it’s Boston or Stockholm with specific names and dates, makes minimal difference to the staging apart from the significance of a monarch being killed. It’s the quality of the production and general coherence that matter most. A note in the accompanying booklet written by the production’s dramatic advisor Malte Krasting mentions how the characters are living constantly behind a mask with the whole scenario a pretence. I’m not sure this perspective is justification to controversially avoid using any masks for the masquerade ball in the final scene, a decision that in turn bafflingly contradicts the title of the opera.

Director Johannes Erath states that he sees the three main protagonists Riccardo, Renato and Amelia as “incredible lonely people who cling to one another”. An interesting viewpoint but not particularly the notion I arrive at after watching the production. I doubt much of the directorial thinking would be perceptible to the audience watching the production without prior explanation. At times I wondered if the stage director was being too clever for his own good. The idea from the creative team that makes the most impact is centring the set on a large Art Deco bed and headboard set with lamps positioned smack in the centre of the stage. A bed as a focal point is not an uncommon feature in contemporary opera stagings. Making the floor design is a conspicuous concentric pattern. Prominent too is the large staircase that winds around the space from one side to another. At the side of the stage is a separate staircase that leads below stage. Frequently seen is a ventriloquist dummy an amusing comic likeness of Beczała dressed either in ‘white tie’, dressing gown or sailor suit. During the production on the ceiling is a mirror image of the concentric patterned floor and the bed. In the upside down bed is a lifelike dummy of Beczała as Riccardo that during Amelia’s aria Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa is first seen partially covered by a duvet stretched out after being shot. Erath stretches the role of Ulrica the soothsayer as a recurrent presence, no doubt serving to underline the importance of her prophecy in the scenario. Notably in act one, as the curtain opens while Riccardo is lying on the bed Ulrica can be seen at the bedhead. Prior to singing her big aria she appears at the top of the staircase, then at the bedhead handing the potion bottle to Amelia. In the final scene as Riccardo lies dying Ulrica is seen again at the top of the staircase illuminated brightly from behind; it’s a chilling and striking sight.

Set designer Heike Scheele ensures that floor to ceiling white net curtains play a central role often taking the place of physical walls. Throughout the set, no doubt to provide visual atmosphere, what the audience see is bathed in steely grey monochrome. Themed mainly in the elegant high society fashions of the 1920s Gesine Völlm’s costumes are beautifully designed, stylish and vividly coloured. Dark pinstripe three piece suits and more prominent ‘white tie’ formal wear is the dress of Riccardo, Renato and the men too consisting of a black tailcoat, with white carnation, and trousers, white waistcoat, white bow tie and gloves with black silk top hat and spats. The women cast are seen mainly at the masquerade ball elegant in their evening dress and hats. When they take off their black tailcoats Riccardo and Renato wear luxurious floor length dressing downs one in blue with a Japanese style wave design at the bottom and the other quilted in purple which they exchange later. In various productions I have seen Ulrika kitted out in a range of weird and wonderful outfits most notably covered in chicken wire (actually nylon) studded with sharp wooden stakes. Here Völlm has gone for glamour, dressing the soothsayer in a black ball gown with sheer mesh arms and neckline. Stunning is the sight of Amelia robed in a long white long-sleeved gown which reminded me of a wedding dress, also wearing a dark stylish dress with a wide lapel and front trimmed in what looks like silver and later a striking fitted black dressing gown over white silk pyjamas. Völlm has given the page Oscar ‘white tie’ adorned with sparkly black tails and matching oval brimless cap. Lamentably the monochrome lighting scheme makes the colours and much of the detail of this classy 1920s clothing virtually imperceptible unless the principal characters, or very occasionally the group, is being spotlit. Especially successful is when lighting designer Joachim Klein spotlights Ulrica several times to stunning visual effect. There are video projections employed, mainly images of Riccardo’s face, but in truth they don’t amount to much.

In additional to the total absence of masks worn at the masquerade ball Erath and
Scheele make a large number of directorial changes to the detail of the original scenario. Having gone down this route the creative partnership seems to obsessively change numerous visual elements from the libretto. For example the vase, used to draw lots for who to kill Riccardo, becomes a top hat; for his visit to the soothsayer Riccardo’s disguise as a fisherman or any disguise is totally dispensed with and the potion made from a magic herb that cures lovesickness to be gathered in a graveyard at midnight becomes a fizzy drink like an Alka-Seltzer. With the bed taking centre stage this means that many of the important and well established locations are omitted such as from act one Ulrica’s dwelling or cave where she invokes the devil and from act two the under the gallows-place on a lonely field where the magic herb grows. Even the dancing at the masquerade ball takes place around the bed.

Assured Polish tenor Piotr Beczała gives a quite masterly performance in the principal role of Riccardo the fun loving governor of Boston who can’t take important matters seriously, infatuated with the wife of his loyal secretary Renato. Only last year at Dresden just prior to the opening night of the Christine Mielitz revival of Lohengrin, Beczała, who had recently completed his run of the Bayerische Staatsoper performances of Un Ballo in maschera for this video, told me in interview that Riccardo was one of the roles that best suited his voice type. A splendid actor who is clearly relishing the role Beczała’s voice is in stunning condition demonstrating his polished and unwavering technique that allows the production of attractive colours with such irresistible freshness. Nevertheless for reasons that I can understand there are some who consider a native Italian tenor as essential for the role. Last month in Munich I reported from the Bayerische Staatsoper production in the Philipp Stölzl staging of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier with Anja Harteros as Maddalena de Coigny (review) and I can attest that the German soprano is in marvellous form. Harteros as the love-struck heroine Amelia tormented by remorse displayed her attractive soprano voice to glorious effect with winning amounts of expression. An affecting highlight is Amelia’s act three aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia, sung whilst sitting on the bed imploring Renato for forgiveness and pleading to see her son again. Quite stunning is the amount of drama Harteros generates whilst remaining so poised and accurate. Outstanding in the act two seduction aria Teco io sto is how Beczała and Harteros develop an increasing dramatic intensity that feels remarkably heartfelt.

In the part of Renato, Riccardo’s faithful secretary and friend, baritone George Petean
isn’t able to demonstrate anywhere near the same level of stage presence and acting ability as Beczała. Not for a minute does he make a convincing assassin but his endeavours throughout are creditable. Petean’s voice projects well through the opera house with a clear, mellow tone although his phrasing feels cumbersome to manage. Mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau’s portrayal of the eerie Ulrica with her blonde tresses was mainly successful. Ulrica’s key aria Re dell'abisso, affrettati where the soothsayer summons up her magic powers sounded reasonably menacing. Although Damerau’s voice production is generally fine throughout her range I much prefer the darkness of the authentic contralto voice for which Verdi designed the role. As the high-spirited Oscar, Riccardo’s young page, Sofia Fomina really makes the most of the trouser role. Displaying her fine soprano Fomina is the pick of the supporting cast. Co-conspirators Samuel and Tom played by Anatoli Sivko and Scott Conner also seem very much at home in their roles.

Well prepared by chorus master Sören Eckhoff the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper excel, sounding inspiring from start to finish. Of course the men, or should I say the conspirators, have the advantage over the women by having the memorable ‘laughing chorus’ to sing as they make wicked fun of Renato; one of the opera’s highlights. Taking the baton Zubin Mehta conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester with all the intelligence and passion we have come to expect from this experienced Verdian. This is a world class orchestra a collective that responds to Verdi’s writing with vibrant, frequently thrilling, playing. Tiziano Mancini has excelled with his video direction which can’t have been easy owing to the challenging monochrome lighting. With a choice of satisfying stereo and surround sound the sonics have been produced to a high standard and the HD picture, despite the mainly grey background, has been captured as well as possible too. In the booklet accompanying the release there is a helpful track listing but curiously no synopsis. There is however an essay on the production titled Deceptions and Reflections written by Malte Krasting that isn’t easy to make much sense of. Neither is there any bonus footage on the video such as interviews from the principals, conductor or creative team; a good opportunity missed to provide some additional clarity about the staging.

Eminently enjoyable, this marvellous if underrated Verdi opera Un Ballo in maschera is compellingly performed with Piotr Beczała in masterly form.

Michael Cookson

Production details
Stage Director – Johannes Erath
Set Designer – Heike Scheele
Costume Design – Gesine Völlm
Video Projections – Lea Heutelbeck
Lighting Design – Joachim Klein
Dramatic Advisor – Malte Krasting
Video director – Tiziano Mancini
Sound formats:
a) Stereo PCM 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Resolution 1080i – 16.9 Filmed in High Definition from an HD source



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