Un ballo in maschera Royal Opera House January 2nd 2015

Some fine singing can’t mask a staved-in production.

The Royal Opera House’s Ballo. What a disappointment in so many ways, and an inauspicious start to 2015. On paper, a surefire winner principally due to Calleja and Hvrotovsky as two powerhouse leads, yet both ended up looking lost at sea.

Ballo is Verdi at his most engaging, and one can stage the drama (for there is drama) in any number of ways: highlight the familial, or the supervening burden of state, nation and status. Delineate the tension between private and public, too, delve into a love denied and its fatal consequences, or simply gasp as a man is betrayed for jealously – or for what the character sees as a greater good. So much potential, and here thrown away.

There was no suffocation of unfolding tension, no intimacy.  Character development was elementary. The ball scene was a disaster, and costuming looked cheap. Dupioni and satin does not memorable staging make. Oscar led the dance as if at a square dance, front and centre of stage. The sequence seemed clumsy and under-rehearsed – strange because the actors would have been doing it for over a month now. The guy next to me was checking his watch every 10 minutes hoping this hellish experience would end, and he could flee. The guy on my left slept all the way through Act 1 (lucky man). The watch checking man’s wife slept all through Act 1. I sat through Act 1 not sleeping, but hoping it would get better or at least get no worse – which it didn’t. The whole evening one long cringe, and a version of “drowning, not singing” each aimlessly directed part, ill-defined motif, grated, and blundering personregie couldn’t cohere the production into anything resembling a satisfying musical experience.

Speaking of drowning, in this Ballo were sailors, and in the séance, they were courtiers in maschera. As sailors, are wont,exuberance takes hold and in an exquisitely clumsy moment during “Di’ tu se fidele il flutto m’a spetta” Calleja is tasked to climb onto a table where his courtiers heft up the table a few gingerly centimeters to simulate the movement of a ship. The image of Calleja gamely singing whilst being timidly rockabyed by four burly stevedores was toe-curling. Not for nothing this from a friend:

This type of literal mindedness drives me crazy. The libretto is enough to convey meaning, so why bother to show what is being sung? Other directorial decisions rob this production of any dramatic impetus or punctum. Renato comes striding from far upstage telegraphing his arrivals. One can see the assembling of women for the séance scene with Ulrica minutes before it begins. Calleja is hoisted again onto a plinth, probably by the same four guys who hoisted him earlier. He helpfully adjusts his legs a few seconds before the lift so they can actually heft him up. And the less said about the moving statues the better. Ulrica has a comical eyepatch. A hunchback shambles around without purpose:

And that was just onstage. In the pit, one word: Oren. As the name of a famous boxer or wrestler, MMA or pankration athlete would strike fear into a heart of a competitor, so does the name Oren speak to so many inwardly groaning and upset opera goers who see his name charged with care of musical forces. As he sucked the life from the Tosca I saw in Paris (and got booed at the end for it) so too did he give us a vapid and ponderous reading of the score here. Trademark idiosyncracies were there which right minded listeners can only take as wrongheaded interpretation: to understand them as brave choices or the taking of risks is only fair when those risks pay off, and here there was no pay off. The band sounded aimless, playing with no vim or elan. Notes were in the right places but the heart and fire was absent. At one point I watched Oren’s conducting. It is a curious thing. It just looks wrong. Hesitant and aimless, resembling faffing and incoherent nothingness. The result is evident: the sound is of an orchestra thrust upon its own resources to stay together. They go by the book, but by the book is inadequete.

Eyepatched melodrama, Marianne Cornetti’s Ulrica. Photo is property of Royal Opera House, copyright.

Further, adding to the cringe, Oren paused for applause where no applause is naturally forthcoming. This led to the most hesitant and polite and meek applause I have ever heard in an opera house. Genuinely embarrassing. The Royal Opera House website says “Verdi’s music for Un ballo in maschera is some of his most sophisticated and subtle,” and yet they pick one of the most unmsical conductors around. Scandalous.

Individually things weren’t much better. Best in show was Oscar, and as my twitter friend said

This Oscar, Serena Gamberoni distinguished herself throughout by weight of conviction she brought to her role. Oscar is hardly a show-stopping role, but Gamberoni sung it with prowess and sensitivity.  It was a shame to see her clumsily sent sidestage (to grope the housemaid)  until Renato and the conspirators have had Amelia choose who is to kill Riccardo. It was as if Thoma really wasn’t quite sure to do with the blocking, or in fact, with anybody. Yet, brave Gamberoni! despite the farrago she found herself in, her acting was noteworthy for being invested with sincerity, and vocally I had no qualms: she was excellent.

With Calleja though, qualms – some down to my own tastes. His vibrato is a little too fast for me, and although in deportment he should be able to carry off the gravitas of a king, this didn’t come through at all, least not in his acting, which was perfunctory to say the least. I think he was genuinely miscast. In moments of pathos again, the notes were there but the conviction was not and drama and pathos need conviction, audiences can smell its absence, and like Nature, opera abhors a vacuum.

As mentioned, Hvorotovsky‘s Renato is an appealing concept on paper. A shaky start and a better second half couldn’t disguise the fact that he was sounding underpowered and a little tired. He really pushed to get out the power in his arias and the pushing became a little too effortful. Still, he garnered applause, including a huge BRAVO for the first thing he sung – which will carry over very well on radio. (Yes, didn’t I mention this was being recorded by the BBC for broadcast? I doubt it will ever hit the airways though, thank the lord.) So, well done “Bravo” thrower, I hope you’re pleased.

Liudmiyla Monastyrska was staved in by dreadful direction (at one point she is singing to Riccardo whilst he stands for no reason in a grave.) And again, Thoma has to get her out of the way for Renato to conspire after he has threatened to kill her, so she trudges to her child’s bedroom where she attempts to play with the child actor for about five painful minutes. Her piano notes were curious inasmuch as she seemed incapable of actually producing anything resembling one. Louder she was better, and happily her pieces do have loud bits, and thus, cries of “Brava” for an engagingly sung “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” despite the aforementioned weird p notes.

I didn’t stay for applause, in fact, I didn’t applaud much. The whole thing was a big waste of singing talent. This should never be revived. Friends on twitter are legitimately, genuinely angry about it. I an initiating an edict of damnatio memoriae. Thus begins 2015. Things can only get better.



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