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Verdi ,  Un Ballo in Maschera : Orquesta y Coro del Teatro Real. Conductor: Jesús López Cobos.Teatro Real de Madrid. 28 and 30. 9.2008. (JMI).


Coproduction Covent Garden and Teatro Real.

Director: Mario Martone
Sets: Sergio Tramonti
Costumes: Bruno Schwengl
Lighting: David Harvey


Riccardo: Marcelo Álvarez/Francesco Hong, tenor
Amelia: Violeta Urmana/Indra Thomas, soprano
Renato: Marco Vratogna, baritone
Oscar: Alessandra Marianelli/Sabina Puértolas, soprano
Ulrica: Elena Zaremba/Malgorzata Walewska, contralto
Samuel: Miguel Sola, bass
Tom: Scott Wilde, bass
Silvano: Borja Quiza, bass

This year the Teatro Real decided to open the  season with one of Verdi’s best known operas  and it does so with a stellar cast on  paper and with live  broadcasts  to almost 100 cinemas  in Europe.

Mario Martone’s production is a collaboration with Covent Garden, where it was premiered some three and half years ago with mixed reviews. Martone does not follow the fashion of returning Ballo in Maschera to its Swedish origins, locating the action instead in north America during the Civil War.

About half of the opera takes place in the front of the stage with a curtain closing it, using the whole stage only for the scenes with Ulrica, the “Orrido Campo” and the masked ball  itself. The production’s greatest appeal is this last scene, which uses a large inclined mirror that allows us to see the ball on two levels, the normal stage for chorus and soloists and the floor below for the dancers and the small orchestra, all of which can be seen perfectly reflected in the mirror. This is an interesting, and even spectacular, solution after what is otherwise a rather mediocre production.  Martone’s direction has little interest however, although he does good work in moving the chorus around the stage.

Jesús López Cobos was again in the pit and his direction was much better than I had expected after hearing him on other occasions. To me, this was his best work in a Verdi opera, offering fine dramatic quality in his reading and  perfect control, as is usual for him, of both stage and pit. It was as if López Cobos, after his decision not to continue at  Teatro Real beyond his contract, felt more confident and willing to show that he is a great conductor. The orchestra gave a very good performance and the Chorus was on top form.

Marcelo Ávarez surely has the most beautiful tenor voice to be heard today in any opera house. It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to listen to such beautiful singing, although the role of Riccardo is probably at the limit of his vocal resources. He sang very brightly all night, but in the last scene he had some slight difficulties, which I hope are no more than incidental. His top register is not as free as it used to be, something which is not of any importance at the moment, but could be of concern in the future.

Korean Francesco Hong replaced the advertised Giuseppe Gipali in the second cast. The substitution made sense, considering the successful debut of this tenor when he replaced Roberto Alagna a couple of years ago in Il Trovatore. However, Manrico is not Riccardo, and if Hong was then able to hide his  deficiencies in Trovatore with a very bright Pira, I cannot say the same for  this occasion. Riccardo requires an elegance and a vocal fluidity that are not Hong’s greatest strengths. He was a reliable interpreter, but he sang invariably forte, and there were too many breaks in his line, preparing for  high notes.

Violeta Urmana is one of the few dramatic sopranos regularly  active just now and it is a pleasure to listen to her in such a demanding part as Amelia. There is no question she has all the notes, but the very top register does not have the quality that can be expected from a true soprano star. She was at her best in the “Orrido Campo” scene, singing  and also sang  the aria “Morró ma prima in grazia” with taste and conviction.

American Indra Thomas was a disappointment as  Amelia. She is considered by many a Verdi soprano, which is only half true to my mind. Her middle range is of poor quality, the bottom register sounds rather artificial and she is best with the high notes, until she has to reach the top when she tends to shout, which sounds unpleasant. Her Italian diction could easily compete with and surpass the great Joan Sutherland. Was she really singing in Italian?

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna had to sing five performances in a row, having had to replace Carlos Álvarez in the first cast. My memories of this singer were of a dramatic voice, but rather coarse. He has improved vocally, although I rather think that Renato is too light for his voice. After a poor start, he did improve in the second half, offering a remarkable “Eri tú”.  With today’s lack of Verdi baritones Vratogna can be a good choice. He wore an earring, apparently required by Martone and it was hard  to at first understand the idea of an American soldier wearing an earring in 19th century, but I discovered it did have some sense. Thanks to my friend the  musicologist Fernando Fraga, I learned that the ear – ring also appears  in a film of Ettore Bastianini at La Scala in the same role.

Young  Alessandra Marianelli made an exemplary Oscar, both as an actress and as a very accomplished singer. The role fits her like a glove and she was perfect. Sabina Puértolas was also good in the second cast, but not at quite  the same level.

Elena Zaremba was a remarkable Ulrica, although there is an excessive vibrato in  her voice sometimes. She has the bottom register that the role requires and she was always convincing. Polish Malgorzata Walewska was a disappointment in the second cast. With a small voice and poor projection, she was almost inaudible in too many passages.

In the secondary roles Miguel Sola (Sam) was better than his conspirator colleague Scott Wilde (Tom) and  Borja Quiza was a very good Silvano, very promising. There was a full house for  both days. The biggest successes went to Marcelo Alvarez and Violeta Urmana and
López Cobos, Marianelli and Zaremba had a very warm final reception too. In the second cast Hong and Vratogna were the leaders at the “applause meter”.

José M Irurzun

Picture © Javier del Real

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