This Brussels “Ballo in Maschera” was posted a couple weeks ago and I think a couple folks may have posted that they started to watch it but did not finish. So I was curious and I watched the entire production. In light of a certain conversation about another “Ballo” maybe folks are a bit reticent but I have to say that on the whole I found it to be an interesting performance and this production is nothing like that other production – there was not a naked person in the whole opera!
Musically the performance is strong. The singers are, for the most part, singers I am not familiar with – except for Kathleen Kim as Oscar, who I think we all know from her multiple HD performances (including as Oscar). She was, as always, terrific, and, in my view, was the strongest member of the cast. The other really outstanding performance was Nichole Lemieux as Ulrica. She has a strong voice with a solid low register and a soaring top, and she is a great actress. She imbued the character with a bit of arrogance that I found interesting and, frankly, refreshing. Maria José Siri was a good and sympathetic as the victimized Amelia and Stefano Secco as the dictator Gustavo was also strong, though he came off as too nice a guy to be guilty of being such a heinous oppressor. The Renato of George Petean was very strong, and his acting was really top notch, I truly could feel his pain and anguish in “Eri tu.” I also really liked the more threatening and harsh presentation of the Ribbing and Horn of Tijl Faveyt and Carlo Cigni – these guys were truly creepy in this production. Carlo Rizzi conducted – from memory without a score – and musically the performance was very strong. He is a great conductor. The chorus and the orchestra also were outstanding. A special shout-out to the English Horn and principal Cello for really gorgeous playing in Ameilia’s two arias.
Now, I have to make an observation about this opera before talking about the production. “Un Ballo in Maschera” is principally about relationships. That is the primary focus of the plot – in my opinion. There is this political conspiracy within which the interpersonal conflict is set like a picture frame. But the primary focus is the interpersonal issues: the forbidden love of Gustavo and Amelia and the betrayal of Renato by his wife and best friend. Even the two conspirators, we learn in Act 3, are driven to this conspiracy by personal slights – confiscation of property and the murder (death) of a brother. None of it is really political in the same way as is, for example, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In JC the conspiracy and the political issues are the primary issue driving the plot. There are, of course personal issues – the friendship and ultimate betrayal of Brutus and even the petition to grant amnesty to Casca’s brother, but they are all set within the context of the overriding political issue. Even Marc Antony is ultimately focused on politics. He uses the personal to effect the political failure of the conspiracy. Now, why do I bring up this play? There are obvious similarities of the plot, but the main difference is the principal focus – politics and conspiracy in JC and interpersonal relationships in “Ballo.” Thus it follows that Renato is no Brutus for he is driven to join the conspiracy only by his own anger, hurt, jealousy and desire of revenge (as are Horn and Ribbing BTW); and Gustavo himself is no Julius Caesar. JC was a great general and a brilliant politician. We get no sense that Gustavo in this opera has any such abilities. In fact, one wonders how Gustavo has time to rule a realm at all since he spends his time pursuing this illicit affair with Amelia and going to see fortune-tellers. His one and only official act is to write up the letter of appointment to the ambassadorship to England for Renato, which itself is driven by personal reasons – that is, to get Amelia out of Sweden.
Consequently, “Ballo” works if the director keeps the primary focus on the inter-personal relationships and the conflicts within them. “Ballo” does not work so well when the conspiracy is elevated to the primary focus of the production. This is the problem with this production. We start off with a projection that suggests that Gustavo is ruler over a land in which there is much oppression, misery, hunger and deprivation. When the curtain rises we discover that Gustavo is some kind of Orwellian dictator and he presides over the realm as an oppressive dictator. Also, there is no individuality in this realm (probably not Sweden) as everyone is masked, and everyone has numbers on their costumes (so how is it that Renato didn’t recognize his wife’s number as it is clearly marked on her outfit?) Now as worthy as the focus may be the problem is that this libretto simply won’t sustain it. The director is constantly trying to pull us into the realm of “1984” politics, but the personal stuff keeps getting in the way. I found those head mask things to be superfluous and irrelevant and downright irritating and I am sure the singers hated them. Act 2, however, was truly creepy and the conspirator’s entrance near the end of the act is the best and most effective scene in the production. This was the moment when this production worked the best. But then the interpersonal stuff gets in the way again.
I have to say something about the ending, and I will try to do so without giving very much of it away. I have always found the ending to this opera to be rather unsatisfying. The conspirators manage to assassinate the King and then he forgives them and then everyone is sorry. Right! There is a twist in this production that I found initially shocking and disturbing, but in reflection I thought was effective, and made the ending much more profound. I will not give it away except to say that it is one of the great lessons of history that one dictator is overthrown and the liberator then becomes the next dictator! And so, on the ground nothing ever changes.
I encourage you to watch this. It is thought-provoking and interesting. It is not offensive. It encouraged me to spend a fair amount of time today pondering the connection between “Ballo” and “Julius Caesar” which is a connection I would not have thought of were it not for watching this production. Ultimately I think “Ballo” is not one of Verdi’s best libretti. This production in fact kind of reveals the holes in the plot. But the music is glorious. I finished Act 2 and wanted to go back and watch it again because the music is so glorious. So, enjoy and see what you think.