Un ballo in maschera (Giuseppe Verdi-Antonio Somma, 1859). A Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revival director Samantha Seymour. Conductor Stephen Lord. Seen at the Canadian Opera Company on February 5. My intro to Il Ballo HERE.
The setting is American of indeterminate age, closer to the Civil Rights era American South than perhaps today’s South. Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas) is a progressive and popular but philandering governor or President who is, unlike the libretto Riccardo, married—to a lady aware of his peccadilloes but willing to turn the blind eye. (This is a silent role, costumed in Jacky O-like ensembles with gloves and hats.)
We are in a wedding/dance hall on the ground floor of a hotel. One look at the first crowd scene, and there is an obvious racial divide between the guests and the serving staff. We are in the middle of what could be a political party retreat—the hotel has been booked for a few days and the operators, the handlers, the staff will all work and play in the same building. The wives are there too, but women make fewer outings. The tutti chorus scenes are the occasions for expressing American nationalism, so for the martial “O figlio d’Inghilterra” everybody is solemnly putting their hands to their hearts as they would for the Star-Spangled Banner. The final scene of the opera also unfolds as the national coming together in a joint destiny.
Oscar is the only woman among the inner circle, and according to the program notes, she is a performance artist hired by the free-thinking politician to inspire, stir up, and tell the truth during their decision-making sessions. I would not have known this without the notes, but the girl called Oscar (Simone Osborne, in the best role I’ve seen her in) could easily work here as a mysterious jester figure who just happens to join the suits at some of the key moments to mock or propel action. It’s a really well thought-out role—Oscar runs around (entire stage is her playground), toys with the microphone, wears the Bjork swan dress at the ball, mocks the dramatic scenes as they’re happening, and does macabre pranks. (The first shot heard in the production is Oscar’s doing. It is a glitter gun shot-cum-champagne cork explosion, at the end of Act 1, making fun of everybody’s protectiveness around the politician, and of his own fear of assassination. Needless to say, we’ll hear another, proper shot in the final act.)
Ulrica (Elena Manistina) is likely the member of the staff, since one of her layers of clothing is the light blue staff uniform, over which she’s thrown a knitted sweater. I couldn’t figure out what the object levitating while she’s telling fortune is, but it looks much like one of those public washroom keys that have enormous key chains. She might as well be washroom cleaning staff, or one of those old ladies who collect coins at the toilette entrances. For her prophesy scene, the female chorus wearing staff uniforms settles down to listen. It’s the end of the work day.
The big do around Ulrica’s expulsion that Riccardo prevents could be either the firing from the hotel, or deportation due to her immigration status. Either would make sense.
Riccardo and Amelia have their big private courting scene in the empty hall after everybody else has gone to bed. (Except his wife, who after walking in on them, discreetly leaves unnoticed.) The two hanged figures incongruously dangling from the ceiling—the lovers are, after all, supposed to be meeting near the gallows—could be a wink-and-nudge in the direction of the letter of the libretto, or, and I prefer this interpretation, an illustration that we’re still in an era of the acceptance of the death penalty.
The scene of the masked ball is equally well executed, with most of the people ending in a sleepy drunken stupor, and Oscar lying down over the laps of the equally inebriated conspirators seated front stage. Renato seems to be the only one left sober.
Musically, no fault was to be found in the Stephen Lord-conducted Verdi that night. I was in row N (about eight or nine rows from the pit) and the orchestra never overpowered. The volume stayed under control, and Lord kept the pit finely attuned to the sometimes rather intimate and other times properly rowdy goings-on on stage.
Bryan Epperson Alastair Eng‘s cello provided a sweetly dark accompaniment to Amelia’s remarkable “Morro, ma prima in grazia”. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Amelia equally shone in her other solo number, “Ma dell’arido stelo divulsa” (English horn obbligato from the pit by Lesley Young). There were some show-stopping highass pianissimi out of silent pauses that were sheer magic.
Pittas sang Riccardo well, although he is and looked much too young for the role of a charismatic middle-age Lothario. Roland Wood’s baritone is brightly coloured and supple, but his Renato was more in a comic than sinister mode. I somewhat missed the drama of the vengeful husband with Wood’s Renato as a genial John Goodman sort.
Osborne’s bouncy Oscar added necessary spice of ironic & fabulous & sometimes even camp to the proceedings.
Remaining performances: 8, 11, 14, 16, 20, 22 February.
Photos by Michael Cooper / COC