Almost every opera is about love and death, but Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maachera goes a step further with a love scene in a graveyard. Director Katharina Thoma, however, did not seen to have found this enough: why not staging the whole opera in the graveyard?! Although props and scenic elements clearly shows us the different locations in the libretto against the cemetery backdrop, the audience still has to deal with a bunch of ballet dancers characterized as perambulant graveyard sculptures that interact with Amelia and Riccardo. Curiously, the only supernatural aspect of the story – the fortune teller Ulrica – is shown here as a charlatan, even if all her prophecies turn out very accurate. The fact that the “American” version of the libretto is retained in a staging that looks distinctively European is quite puzzling too. Also, having Oscar dressed as a soldier during the final minutes comes entirely out of the blue and seems to imply that Ms. Thoma has found the predicaments of Riccardo, Amelia et al irrelevant compared to “really serious matters”. In any case, if most of that looks a bit ludicrous and contrived, Ms. Thoma does deserve credit for making Joseph Calleja do, for once, something very similar to acting.
The Royal Opera House has gathered a stellar cast for this new production. Liudmyla Monastyrska has done some very commendable Verdian singing, but Amelia is so far her most compelling role: she finds no technical challenges in this difficult writing, avoids the usual trap of coming up too formidable and shows Amelia vulnerability in exquisite mezza voce and truly musicianly phrasing. Some demanding passages sounded entirely new to my ears in their cleanliness and shapeliness. When I saw Marianne Cornetti as Ulrica during the Japanese tour of the Teatro Reggio di Torino some months ago, I had the impression that her voice had taken the soprano direction, but she proved me wrong this evening in her solid and natural low register and the warm (if soft grained) quality of her voice. Serena Gamberoni was an ideal Oscar, her soprano full toned up to its highest reaches.
Although Riccardo is not among Verdi’s heaviest roles for tenor, it is nonetheless heavy for Joseph Calleja. Of course, it is always a pleasure to hear a tenor of unusual good taste, intelligence and extremely dulcet tonal quality, but his high notes sounded bottled up, some of them grating a bit. There is a great deal of low lying passages in this part and he was not truly at ease in them either. I wish this invaluable Maltese tenor is not directing his career towards roles that do not show up his many strong qualities. Dmitri Hvorostovsky has seen fresher toned days, but that did not prevent him from offering a strong performance, sometimes overthetop on emotionalism, but never boring, profuse in rich high notes and reserves of legato for soft passages. All small roles were ver well cast.
Daniel Oren presided over a very well organized and balanced performance that eschewed any kind of vulgarity and allowed his singers enough leeway to express themselves both in flexibility with tempo and dynamic variety.