Ballroom Ballo

Verdi – Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia – Adrianne Pieczonka
Riccardo – Dimitri Pittas
Ulrica – Yelena Manistina
Renato – Roland Wood
Oscar – Simone Osborne
Silvano – Gregory Dahl
Samuel – Evan Boyer
Tom – Giovanni Battista Parodi

Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Canadian Opera Company Orchestra / Stephen Lord.
Stage directors – Jossie Wieler & Sergio Morabito.

Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario. Sunday, February 16th, 2014.


This was the third stop on a visit that also took in two concerts with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Those two concerts showcased an orchestra on exceptional form obviously flourishing under Kent Nagano’s leadership and in a hall that is the equal of any major concert hall in the world. If I didn’t post anything about the concerts it is no indication of their superlative quality more that I am not as comfortable writing about symphonic music at length as I am about vocal music.

Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre is the home of the Canadian Opera Company and it is a beautiful theatre. Sight lines are good but ticket prices are slightly higher than European theatres. They do however offer excellent deals for unsold last minute seats. The audience is not the best behaved – constant talking, the odd cellphone going off, candy unwrapping and constantly applauding before the music ended became really tiring by the end. It’s a wonderful house though and certainly worth a visit.

Un Ballo in maschera is a work I have been very lucky with in the theatre. The first Ballo I saw on stage was Bieito’s at ENO and it was outstanding. I then had the pleasure of seeing La Urmana at her absolute peak as Amelia at the Teatro Real in 2008 – one of the finest examples of Verdi singing I have ever heard. So I had high hopes for today’s performance with an exciting cast – one of the world’s greatest sopranos with two very exciting talents. If it didn’t quite ultimately convince I think that was more due to the staging and conducting than the singing which was of an excellent quality indeed.

The staging was imported from the Berlin Staatsoper and was the work of the team of Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito. It was updated to 1960s USA and the single set was a ballroom, with a bar on one side occupied by serving ladies and a stage on the other. Despite the updated setting the storytelling was actually incredibly conventional. It followed the plot closely with only the second act where Amelia refers to the ‘orrido campo’ not quite making sense. Otherwise it was just a straightforward framework for the action. It brought no new insights but neither was it offensive. I longed for the theatrical dynamism of a Bieito or even the originality of a Tcherniakov.

Perhaps if there had been a different conductor in the pit it might have convinced more. I found Stephen Lord’s laboured and flaccid conducting routine. I would have liked to have heard much more rhythmic precision and drive. The scene with Ulrica for example sagged quite significantly. This is music of great passion but it didn’t often feel that way in Lord’s hands. We were rewarded by very good playing from the house orchestra and some rich singing from Sandra Horst’s chorus.

The singing on the other hand was excellent. Yelena Manistina’s Ulrica was perhaps the only slight disappointment. The voice sounded forced and the chest register not quite was rich as I remember hearing it. She was competent enough but I was expecting more after her fine Azucena in Munich last year. The supporting roles were very well taken especially Simone Osborne’s Oscar who here was portrayed as a young woman artist. She delivered ‘volta la terrea’ with aplomb, the coloratura expertly dispatched with pinpoint accuracy.

Dimitri Pittas was an interesting Riccardo. The role sounds a size too big for him and there were times (such as the act 2 duet with Amelia) where the strain was quite audible. He is one of nature’s Ducas or Nemorinos rather than a Riccardo. That said, the Italianate warmth in the sound was quite wonderful and he has the essence of the style. I very much hope he doesn’t do the role too often and certainly not in a large house.

Roland Wood was a big surprise for me. I had known him as a Mozart baritone at ENO but here he gave a highly creditable Verdi baritone performance. Indeed, his sound reminded me of Sherrill Milnes. It’s a grainy voice in many ways but he also has a true legato and awareness of Verdian phraseology that is deeply impressive. ‘Eri tu’ was a real highlight of the show, the line strong and the performance captivating, drawing the viewer directly into Renato’s situation. It was only ruined by some idiots who decided to ‘bravo’ loudly before the music had finished completely ruining the mood that Wood had worked so hard to create. I know that there are times when one would really like to show appreciation for a performance but surely showing appreciation is also respecting the fact that an artist has worked really hard to create an introspective mood and that one should wait for the music to completely finish before applauding.

And then there was Pieczonka. She is perhaps not a conventional Verdi soprano – the tone might lack the ultimate richness at the top of the very greatest and intonation sagged at times – but she is an outstanding one. She sang with generous phrasing and genuine feeling that was so captivating. ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’ was a perfect example the generosity and honesty of her singing and ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’ displayed a glorious warmth and generosity of feeling that was just wonderful. She is a remarkable artist and I am so happy to have finally had the opportunity to hear her sing in Italian.

Ultimately this was a bit of a mixed afternoon. There was much to enjoy but also much that left me cold. It was undoubtedly worth the journey for Pieczonka and Wood alone.


Photo: (C) COC Michael Cooper 2014


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