Kennedy era Un ballo in maschera works on many levels

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera is based on an intriguing concept that adds insight in many places but comes a bit unstuck in others.  Coupled to some superb performances, it makes for an enjoyable and intriguing night at the theatre that will have the more adventurous busily and happily dissecting the piece for hours and the die hards reaching for their Zeffirelli pills.

13-14-04-MC-D-0034Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production hails from the Staatsoper Berlin and was directed here by Samantha Seymour.  It’s set in Kennedy era America, which seems a promising choice for a drama about a progressive leader threatened by the conservative forces he has displaced and by his own philandering.  The Kennedy figure, Riccardo, gets a silent Jackie look alike wife who, of course, is not in the original libretto but who serves effectively to point up the dilemmas of figures with a private life, more or less in the public gaze.  Verdi struggled to find a setting for this piece that would satisfy the censors while resonating with his audience.  Today’s directors don’t have the former problem (not as much anyway) but the latter is a timeless problem and Wieler and Marabito’s choice is a judicious one.

13-14-04-MC-D-0159There is a unit set, a glitzy ballroom lit pretty brightly the whole time.  There’s a stage in the background on which various acts play.  Again it serves to point up the idea of public life being lived out in front of an audience.  Making the page Oscar, usually a trouser role, into a flamboyant female performance artist works rather well with this idea.  The set works well for the first and last acts but seems incongruous and scarcely Gothick enough for the second act which canonically takes place at the gallows on the edge of town.  The addition of a couple of hanging corpses, one of them bearing a marked resemblance to the prophetess/witch Ulrica, just seems incongruous and really doesn’t generate the required chill.

13-14-04-MC-D-0515There are some really excellent performances.  It’s hard to imagine Amelia being better sung or more effectively characterised than by Adrianne Pieczonka.  This is just glorious Verdian singing with power, sweetness of tone and beautifully floated pp high notes.  The big numbers deservedly brought the house down.  Dimitri Pittas, as Riccardo, was also very good.  He has the right kind of ardent tenor voice for the role, especially in this youthful incarnation, and he really looks the part too.  New to me was Roland Wood as the vengeful Renato.  Here’s  a genuine Verdi baritone with some real vocal heft, stylish singing and completely unforced high notes.  Definitely one to watch.  Then there was Simone Osborne’s Oscar.  Appearing in a black trouser ensemble in Act 1 and a swan dress in Act 3 she came close to stealing the show whenever she was on stage which, I guess, is natural enough for the nearest thing to comic relief this piece has.  Brilliant physical acting was coupled to some bright characterful singing with the coloratura passages tossed off with aplomb.  The estimable Elena Manistina sang the thankless role of Ulrica well without getting more out of it than there is to get.  There were no real weaknesses in the supporting roles though perhaps one might have wished for something darker and more villainous from the conspirators Tom and Sam (Giovanni Battista Parodi and Evan Boyer).  Stephen Lord conducted.  Things never dragged, it was all appropriately (melo)dramatic and if the balance of the sound sometimes seemed to favour the orchestra it may have been my Row R seat where that happens.  The COC orchestra and chorus were their usual better than reliable selves.

13-14-04-MC-D-0786The reception last night was extremely enthusiastic.  It’s a good show though, like many ambitious productions, it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders.  For anyone with a reasonably open mind the production has a lot to offer and the performances are top class across the board.  There are six more performances between now and February 22nd.

13-14-04-MC-D-1453Photo credits: Michael Cooper

5 thoughts on “Kennedy era Un ballo in maschera works on many levels

  1. I really enjoyed the performance as well. In terms of sound – I’ve heard it now from the side of ring 3 (above the orchestra) and from the centre, front of ring 3 and in both spots never had the sense of the orchestra overwhelming the singers. Increasingly I don’t find the sound as good in the orchestra. Was chatting with another couple at intermission who attend regularly, and they had the same problem as you in the orchestra though they were a bit closer to the front. I remember last season having two entirely different theatrical experiences when I heard Dialogues des Carmelites. In ring 3 it was musically overwhelming…in a prime orchestra seat, very meh!

  2. Thanks for the vivid report on what sounds like a great evening. The first paragraph gave me a vision of an Elisir where Dulcamara has Zeffirelli pills alongside his other nostrums.

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