Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera is something of a tough cookie. Verdi seemed keen on trying superposition of “affetti”, not only by mixing comedy and tragedy, but by exploring situations in which characters in highly contrasting state of mind sing together. From the overture on, the shifts of mood can be sudden and difficult to manage – and the vocal parts are extremely challenging, especially the prima donna role. Gianandrea Noseda is a conductor who reads his scores with an open mind and is ready to discover new things in them. However, he is no Karajan. This investigation is often made on the expense of musical flow, dramatic intensity and a beautiful orchestral sound. This evening, for instance, Riccardo and his courtiers seemed more mechanical than lithe in the opening scene, Ulrica’s conversations with darker forces anything but dangerous – the orchestra displayed an extremely dry, brassy and common sound throughout, some singers had light voices for their roles and, having a colorless accompaniment kept on leash to help them, brought about the extra challenge of giving them the whole burden of producing any expression, something that they did very occasionally. After the intermission, act III seemed to benefit from the increase in raw energy demanded by Verdi and the performance finally took off. There is a chorus by the end of the opera (Cor si grande e generoso) which is the key moment of this opera. A performance that has succeeded in everything but failed here has ultimately failed. So the beautiful increase in tension built this evening in this passage has redeemed a mostly uneventful afternoon.
A great share of the uneventfulness has to do with Lorenzo Mariani’s disgraceful production, a blend of the kitsch, the superficial, the inefficient and the sloppy. To make things worse, singers have sung the “American” version of the libretto, while the extremely incoherent and anachronistic staging shows something more in keeping with the “Swedish” alternative. A country with such fame for design and theatrical tradition such as Italy should not render its reputation such bad service by exporting something like this to an audience that has paid extremely expensive tickets.
When I left the theatre this evening, I did not know what to say about Oksana Dyka’s Amelia. Listening to her singing this evening was something similar to witnessing a brain surgery: it is not beautiful, there are moments when one would rather go out, but at the end one is relieved to know that there is someone who can perform something as difficult as this when one needs it. Her steely, voluminous and invariably loud soprano opens up in ear-splitting high notes without much effort. I was going to write that she can hold very long lines, but there is very little sense of phrasing in what she does, except when things become very high and very loud. In these moments, her solidity is truly impressive. This all has very little to do with Verdian singing – and one just needs to listen to his or her recordings with Callas, Tebaldi, Stella, you name it, to confirm that – but there is something very honest about her bluntness nonetheless. There is nothing elegant or stylish about her (if you have SEEN her onstage, you know what I mean) and she does not try to be. What she has to offer is consistent loudness – and she does that. I wonder if she has tried Turandot. It might work in a fascinatingly scary way.
Although Marianne Cornetti is moving towards dramatic soprano roles, she still finds time and energy for such a low-lying role such as Ulrica. She does still have her low notes, but her voice now sounds soft-grained for the part. That did not prevent from offering a very commendable performance with feeling for Verdian lines. Ai Ichihara (Oscar) has the necessary ebullience, but the volume is what the French call “confidential” and the high notes were sour rather than silvery.
The role of Riccardo is a bit heavy for Ramón Vargas, who took one whole act to warm up. His low notes are undersupported and there is some flutter in his basic sound, but his is an essentially pleasant voice used with good taste and sense of line. His act III aria was generously sung. If Gabriele Viviani too is on the light side for Renato, he knows how to produce the right effect in this repertoire in his firm-toned, slightly dark baritone.