I went on Tuesday evening to the Met Opera for the last time this season to hear Un Ballo in Maschera. I had already seen this production two seasons ago and had not been that greatly impressed by it, but I was looking forward to once again hearing James Levine conduct Verdi. In the event, I was disappointed as Maestro Levine did not appear - he was, according to the stage manager, "indisposed" - and his place taken by an assistant conductor.
If the production deserves credit for one thing, it's in leaving behind the ridiculous setting in colonial Massachusetts that Verdi was forced to use in the face of the Italian censors' intransigence, first in Naples and then in Rome. Perhaps Verdi should have been more prudent in the first place than to have built his opera on a libretto by Antonio Somma that was itself based on a historical incident of regicide. But the 1792 assassination of Sweden's Gustav III was more than sixty years in the past by the time Verdi took up the subject and had already been used as the basis for other operas, most notably Daniel Auber's Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué (1833) with a libretto by Eugène Scribe that Somma followed closely. And there was no way Verdi could have anticipated the 1858 attempt on the life of Napoleon III by three of the composer's countrymen. At any rate, all these complications came together to create a fiasco that saw the opera's action moved from Sweden to Poland until it was finally removed from Europe altogether and ended up, utterly improbably, in New England. It was during all this confusion that Verdi wrote in frustration:
"From Nabucco, you may say, I have never had one hour of peace. Sixteen years in the galleys!"
None of this matters in the least, though, when listening to the music itself. The opera contains some of Verdi's finest work. Unfortunately, it was not done justice on Tuesday evening. Whoever the conductor was - the stage manager had announced his name too quickly for me to catch - he was not up to the task.
As for the singers, I had seen Sondra Radvonovsky last season in the title role of Bellini's Norma and had thought her excellent in that notoriously difficult bel canto part. Here, as Amelia, she seemed a bit off, at least at Tuesday evening's performance. In contrast, Dolora Zajick, as Ulrica, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as Renato, each brought years of experience to their respective parts and carried them off with all the professionalism one would expect of such fine singers. I had heard Piotr Beczala in February in Iolanta, but he had failed to make any great impression on that occasion. His appearance as Gustavo this season marked the first time he had sung the role at the Met. Beczala gained some notoriety last season in Europe when he announced his refusal to ever again work at La Scala following the hostile reception he encountered there while performing in La Traviata. He received a much warmer reception at the Met, though I am not sure it was entirely merited.
I did not care for David Alden's production any more than I did the last time I saw it. The Met's website refers to it as "film noir-inspired." This was pretty much the same description it applied to Mariusz Trelinski's new production of Iolanta/Bluebeard's Castle and with as little reason. What any of these operas have to do with the gritty black & white crime dramas of the 1940's is beyond me. The word "noir" is simply being used here for its cachet however little sense it makes when applied to these works.