Think of pale pink and blue, and bright red and silver and the 60′s and a grand hotel somewhere in Alabama and the State’s governor political campaign – and segregation, withcraft and murder. No, it is not a movie with Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. It is the Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Although it takes a while to get used to the glitter, the idea is not bad per se. After all, when Verdi had to adapt his plot because of censorship, he himself chose the United States as alternative set. I might be thrown stones at, but I have always found something Broadway-like in Un Ballo in Maschera – take David Parry’s recording in English, look for We can all go and see her together (i.e., Dunque signori aspettovi), close your eyes and tell me, if you can, that you do not feel at Broadway. In any case, although the concept has plenty to offer, it requires a far more complex production.
To start with, the pink ballroom simply does not work as an all-purpose set. Riccardo says that they have to go somewhere else to see Ulrica, but here they do not have to move to see her. Second, Ulrica tells Amelia she has to go to yet another place to find the herbs for the incantation she is looking for. Here, it is again the ballroom and having a bunch of ferns inside the columns sounds like a cheap solution. Third, Riccardo asks Renato to escort Amelia back to her place in town. Here, Amelia just needed to take the same corridor she had taken to get to her room in the same hotel. Finally, none of the main characters but Amelia uses a mask in the closing scene. They are actually seated side by side and unconvincingly seem not to realize each other’s presence. I mean, when you have to “accept” all that, it just looks like sloppy work. Couldn’t they stage the scene by the gallows in some sort of parking place? That would not be a set so difficult or expensive to build. Ulrica’s scene could take place in a storage room at the hotel – an even cheaper set. With some patience, that sort of thing could be done. At least, when some bad seats with limited views are sold for almost 50 euros, one could show a bit more consideration to the audience. Just having ideas is the easy part of the job – making them work is the hard part.
Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search of elegance and symphonic quality is always an advantage in Verdi. The love duet’s closing section, for example, may sound like band music when not properly handled, but animation can live with polish. Otherwise, uneventfulness may creep into the proceedings and finally turn the whole performance unmemorable.
Catherine Naglestad is no Verdian soprano – in a part often recorded by non-Verdian soprano such as Margaret Price or Josephine Barstow. Although her voice is not intrinsically exquisite, she sings with good taste and imagination and floats beautiful pianissimi. She is also a good actress, but her lower register not always works properly, she invariably blurs crotchets and the extreme top notes in act II eluded her entirely.
Un ballo in maschera is considered a tenor opera – and having the uprising Piotr Beczala as Riccardo places an immediate interest in the performance. There is no doubt about his beauty of tone, sense of style and animation – this is a voice always pleasant in the ears. He also know how to place a smile in his singing – and this is important for such a debonair character. The question is – should he really advance further in Verdian territory? In a small opera house such as the Lindenoper, the role ultimately works well for him, but one can see that he has to brace himself for the heroic moments, especially in act II, when he was often overshadowed by the soprano – except at the duet’s last note, when both were covered by the orchestra.
Alfredo Daza has the measure of the role of Renato and he plunges in the part with body and soul. Sometimes the results are dramatically over the top and the curdled sound his baritone acquires above mezzo forte does not suggests much n0bility to this non-villain character. Mariana Pentcheva knows how to play her voice’s inequal registers to the right effect for Ulrica – and she has the necessary charisma for the role. Announced indisposed, Sylvia Schwartz only sang the first verse of her two arias. Nonetheless, this was the best performance I have seen with this singer – her absolutely free top register floats beautifully in this higher-lying roles. Maybe she should explore this repertoire more often than the purely lyric roles I have often seen her sing. As a curiosity, Oscar here is a girl – her act I costumes are a bit at odds with the surroundings. She looks like a dominatrix, but she is only Riccardo’s secretary – but I wonder if a woman in that position in the 60′s would dress like that.