Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House

Verdi – Un ballo in maschera

Riccardo – Joseph Calleja

Amelia – Liudmyla Monastyrska

Renato – Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Ulrica – Marianne Cornetti

Oscar – Serena Gamberoni

Samuel – Anatoli Sivko

Tom – Kim Jihoon

Silvano – Samuel Dale Johnson

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Daniel Oren

Stage director – Katharina Thoma

Royal Opera House, London.  Monday, December 22nd, 2014.

Ballo is a work I have been very lucky with in the theatre.  It was my first introduction to the genius of Calixto Bieito at ENO over a decade ago where lavatorial conspiracies and fellating seamen were part of a riveting and stimulating evening.  I haven’t seen a production to match it since.  Then in Madrid in 2008 I saw Violeta Urmana at the very peak of her powers as an unforgettable Amelia – her singing in ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’ seemed to have the entire auditorium breathing and living the aria with her.  Then there was a very good performance in Toronto earlier this year which revealed Roland Wood as an exciting new talent in the Verdi baritone universe.  Hopes were high tonight but I’m afraid to say that this was one of the dreariest and most disappointing evenings I have ever had at the Royal Opera.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Joseph Calleja as Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Joseph Calleja as Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore

Katharina Thoma’s staging is a coproduction with Theater Dortmund where she is resident director.  The fact that it has already been seen there might suggest that she has had the opportunity to iron out any issues.  Sadly it was full of non sequiturs – set in an unnamed European country at the start of the First World War, this was a theme that was barely explored.  A map in Act 1 gave us a geographical starting point but it never made a reappearance and there seemed to be no further references to the time or place other than costumes.  Then, the ‘orrido campo’ seemed to be a graveyard with moving statues.  These appeared in the overture, second act and finale but otherwise seemed to be absent.  It was as if Thoma had had quite a few ideas but either didn’t know what to do with them or just didn’t want to follow them through.  Direction of the principals was perfunctory – so much was delivered standing at the front and looking at the audience.  Sets looked drab and old – they looked (and sounded – lots of creaking) like something from the 1950s.  For such a technically advanced theatre, it was surprising that sets were wheeled off and on.  Ultimately, it felt like a depressingly lazy piece of theatre that looked, and felt, distinctly amateurish.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Jihoon Kim as Tom in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Jihoon Kim as Tom in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore

The staging wouldn’t have been quite as important if musically the show was satisfying.  Daniel Oren’s conducting seemed to suck the life out of the score in the most dispiriting way.  Tempi were laborious and there was no energy or pointing of the rhythms.  At so many points, the music threatened to ground to a halt.  Worse, ensemble threatened to fall apart at times, especially in the final scene.  He also failed to either guide or support his singers, with one in particular constantly falling behind the beat.  The strings also displayed some patchy intonation.  The chorus sounded much more solid of tone than they have for a while.

Joseph Calleja’s old-fashioned sounding tenor with its fluttering, rapid vibrato is always a pleasure to hear.  He showed the kind of wonderful phrasing the music calls for that was missing in the orchestra.  Sadly, it felt to me that the role takes him beyond his current limits – his final aria was audibly a challenge.  In a smaller house with a more sensitive Amelia it might be a much better fit and it’s a role I would certainly like to hear him in again under those circumstances.

Joseph Calleja as Riccardo and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014
Joseph Calleja as Riccardo and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014

Liudmyla Monastyrska’s impressively large soprano certainly takes no prisoners.  Her generous tone is frequently used with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the verbal acuity of someone reading the phone book.  Intonation also sags at times.  And yet, she really does make an impressive sound as she rides the ensemble and when she blasts the top it makes an imposing impact.  She sang ‘morrò’ with genuine feeling but on the whole left me cold.  The voice seems to know either piano or fortissimo, nothing in between.  With more refinement I can imagine her becoming a very useful and versatile artist.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato in Un ballo in maschera, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato in Un ballo in maschera, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Renato was sung with forced and colourless tone and a lack of a genuine legato.  The aspirates that seemed to permeate every line became tiring after a while.  He received a hearty ovation for his ‘eri tu’ from audience members impressed by the volume he made.  I yearned for something with subtlety and elegance.  This sadly wasn’t it.  Marianne Cornetti’s Ulrica was sung with a firm, rich bottom and an effortless top.  A shame then she was asked to abandon any kind of subtlety or intrigue in her acting of the role.  Serena Gamberoni’s Oscar revealed an interesting lyric soprano.  It doesn’t have the crystalline tone or effortless coloratura of other interpreters but I would very much like to hear her again, perhaps even as Susanna – I imagine it’s a role that would suit her very well.  Kim Jihoon also impressed as Tom with his solid and glamorous bass.

Marianne Cornetti as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Marianne Cornetti as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera © ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore

I wish I could be more positive about this show.  On paper it looked like a very promising cast but the reality for me was sadly less than satisfying.  The conducting sucked all the life out of this wonderful score and the staging was drab and lifeless.  Perhaps with stronger musical direction and an ability to lead the singers and coax out stronger musical performances from them, it might work.  Sadly tonight was certainly not the kind of evening a house such as the Royal Opera should be offering.

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