Saturday, November 10, 2012

The dog ate my production

Un Ballo in Maschera - Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012
Radvanovsky, Alvarez, Hvorostovsky, Kim, Zajick / Luisi

So this production would, I think, be best explainable in two ways:
(1) The Met is running low on money and drastically cut the budget so that David Alden could only afford this shabby display.
(2) Alden had director's block, couldn't think of any staging ideas for months and months, and finally just decided to throw half-remembered bits of other recent Met productions together and call it a show.

If, as is sadly likely, neither of the above apply and this was seriously the considered work of Alden and his team, all the boos they got were well-deserved. And these weren't angry or offended boos at some conceit or idea. They were "are you kidding me!?" boos of disbelief that something so lame and half-baked could be presented as a finished, full-price product.

*     *     *

The worst part is, of course, that the cast showcased by this premiere is so good. Two of the three main principals -- Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky -- are the cream of today's crop, and they are both in very fine voice. Radvanovsky's instrument has filled and evened out from top to bottom with a true Verdian soprano sound, and as always she rings the whole house at any level of her vast dynamic range. Hvorostovsky was not quite convincing as Renato/Anckarström four-plus years ago, but he's really grown into the role: where in the 2010 concert he made the Ballo bits work with personal force, he now can use both personal and sonic; there's no lack of color or dynamic range even in declamation.

Marcelo Alvarez isn't quite the Gustavo/Riccardo of one's dreams -- is Calleja's May run in Frankfurt really his first!? -- but he's very good in this: precise in rhythm and ensembles, good at using word and dynamic accents, and with a pleasing and surprisingly firm lyric sound. Kathleen Kim is both audible and sprightly, something her predecessors haven't simultaneously managed in forever. Ulrica's initial aria sits poorly in Zajick's current voice but there's a lot of good stuff after that. And American bass-baritones Keith Miller and David Crawford as the conspirators bring some much-needed kick to the bottom end of the ensembles.

What's missing? That incandescence where spirit takes over from sound and detail-management. Perhaps it's Luisi (who has everything but that spark of genius), perhaps it's the weight of the lifeless new production, perhaps it's the start-of-run feeling out period after Sandy has hindered preparation. We'll see in the next month as the run continues.

*     *     *

The production did provide a bit of viewing fun: figuring out which bits were lifted from what. The basic stage configuration (the first two acts are on the exact same set) of bare tilted almost-converging floor/ceiling seems to be from Minghella's Butterfly; the surreal civil servants in hats from Lievi's Cenerentola; the women's chorus in the Ulrica scene taken wholesale from Noble's Macbeth; the color palette from Pelly's otherwise forgettable Manon; the ugly decorative wallpaper and use of uniformly-attired chorus in a threatening way from that Decker Traviata, the contemplation area downstage left from Sher's Hoffmann; the physical direction (particularly for Radvanovsky, who's sprawled on the floor a lot) from McVicar's Trovatore... and did Alden venture beyond the moviecast repertory to lift the mass of mirrors for the last scene from the high-point of Volpe's tenure, the too-long-absent Wernicke production of Frau? That's a nice thought. The rest is Generic Gelb Production, with its "near-doctrinaire avoidance/elimination of representational detail (as in Islamic art, words and abstract designs are permitted) in sets though not in costumes, and of course a general tilt to the crass and vulgar in stage direction." The Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene occurs when the sailor requests Ulrica read his fortune.

It's not completely absent of good points: the stage layout does aid the singers' projection (though Radvanovsky doesn't need it), and the first scene of the final act finally provides a more intimate space for action than the full-stage emptiness that's endemic to Generic Gelb and the rest of this production. (It is, however, just a plain white room with tilted floor/ceiling.) But the bad predominates. Least helpful, perhaps, is the contribution of debuting choreographer Maxine Braham, who seemed determined to squash any potential outbreaks of elegance or elan by making not only the singers but the actual dancers look silly in... deconstructed square dances, or whatever that was. (Kim made her dance material at least amusing by throwing in some Olympia bits.) Or perhaps the nadir is the contribution of Alden himself, who apparently didn't bother figuring out how to block the final act: Gustavo, it turns out, is able not only to read a tiny note from halfway across the stage without opening it, but to carry on a private conversation with Amelia while the two are on opposite sides of the massive dance floor, looking away from each other.

As for the idea that the dark and macabre should predominate in a production of Ballo -- well, I think it's quite wrong, but this unserious production isn't much of an occasion to evaluate it. None but the performers come off well here -- including subtitler Cori Ellison, who coarsens (and thereby destroys) the sarcastic joke of the second act's closing laughing chorus.


  1. I rather like the new productions of Carmen, Rheingold and Tales of Hoffman, and look forward to Tempest, but for the most part, I think of Gelb's tenure as IKEA taking over Versailles.

  2. I am still smarting over Gelb's Traviata. It takes time to erase the memory of my favorite opera, thus mangled. Zeffirelli, where are you?


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.