Love in a Time of Prohibition: Un ballo in maschera at the Hessisches Staatstheater, Wiesbaden

Verdi – Un ballo in maschera

Riccardo – Arnold Rutkowski
Renato – Vladislav Sulimsky
Amelia – Adina Aaron
Ulrica – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Oscar – Gloria Rehm
Silvano – Benjamin Russell
Samuel – Park Young Doo
Tom – Florian Kontschak
Un Giudice – Jochen Elbert
Un Servo d’Amelia – John Holyoke

Extrachor des Hessischen Staatstheaters Wiesbaden, Chor des Staatstheaters Wiesbaden, Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden / Patrick Lange.
Stage director – Beka Savić

Hessisches Staatstheater, Wiesbaden, Germany.  Saturday, May 5th, 2018. 

For this year’s Internationale Maifestspiele, the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden engaged director Beka Savić for a new production of Un ballo in maschera.  Savić is a new name to name.  The Serbian director was up until last year an Assistant Director at the house.  On the evidence of this Ballo, she is a fluent and intelligent storyteller.  The house also populated the cast with some very good principals – all of whom would be at home on any of the world’s major lyric stages and we were also joined for a very special appearance by Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Ulrica.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Savić sets the action in prohibition-era Boston.  A shadowy place, where characters in hats and trench coats are ever-present, conspiring.  Ulrica is a lounge singer with a side-career in fortune telling and illegal alcohol trading, as we see her both deliver her ‘re dell’abisso’ into a microphone and later dispose of the clandestine alcohol into a bucket.  Riccardo and Renato could well be mob allies, initially in a turf war with others, before finally turning on themselves.  The ball itself is held within an attractive art deco setting.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

The narrative is always presented to us clearly and cogently.  The personenregie succeeds in creating real flesh and blood characters and the stage action moves along efficiently and effectively.  It did feel that the staging lost its way somewhat at the ‘orrido campo’.  Set in a shady place, where women sit on the streets with their babies and men snatch them to take them away, it’s also the scene of Amelia’s drug taking – she, desperately searching for a fix.  Yet this idea of Amelia having a drug habit/dependency, as a result of her particular situation, is something that is briefly taken up but then no longer explored.  It could certainly have provided an interesting angle to develop but it was picked up and otherwise left aside.  Nevertheless, this was a competent and intelligent staging.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Musically there was much that gave pleasure.  Arnold Rutkowski sang Riccardo in a robust, Italianate tenor.  His sunny tone gave much pleasure and the voice is a good size, pinging through the house with ardent ease.  It does tighten up a little on top, the very top not quite integrated with the rest of the voice.  I also wished that he had also experimented with some dynamics other than forte and above at times – although he did start pulling back in his death scene.  Certainly an exciting talent.  As indeed was Vladislav Sulimsky’s Renato.  In a universe starved of Verdi baritones, on the evidence of tonight, there is a lot of promise there.  He has a good line, the tone is rock solid and absolutely even in emission.  He sang his ‘eri tu’ with impassioned grit, the voice even throughout the range and seemingly defied gravity on top.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

The ladies also offered some extremely satisfying singing.  Adina Aaron is the owner of a large, silvery and silky soprano.  She sang her ‘ecco l’orrido campo’ with dignity and generosity, the voice opening up thrillingly to the high C.  In her ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’, she offered us some quite heartbreaking soft singing, floating the closing phrases on the breath.  There are some issues with register integration, particularly around the middle, with the breaks evident, and a sense of her not quite being in full control of the passaggio.  Still, it’s a magnificent instrument, especially at the top in full flight, and Aaron is a singer I would very much like to hear again.  Lemieux was luxury casting as Ulrica and gave us a scene-stealing cameo.  She made the most of that full, chocolatey bottom and the penetrating top seems to have acquired additional touch of metal.  Gloria Rehm sang Oscar’s music with pretty, crystalline tone, soufflé light, and turned the corners nicely.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

The remaining roles were well taken, with an especially honourable mention for Benjamin Russell’s handsomely-voiced Silvano.  Albert Horne’s chorus was on good form with solid blend and a warmth of sound.  The orchestra seems to have improved further since my last visit.  Other than some sour tuning in the violins occasionally, the quality of the playing was more than satisfactory.  The solo cellist played with heartfelt beauty as she duetted with Aaron’s Amelia in ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’.  Patrick Lange’s reading felt somewhat heavy.  The string sound was quite full, whereas I felt that it ideally needed a lightness of touch and sharpness of attack.  Tempi also felt a notch or two slower than ideal.  Still, he marshalled his forces well and kept tight coordination between the off-stage banda and the orchestra in the pit.

Photo: © Karl & Monika Forster

Tonight was a very satisfying evening.  We saw a staging that presented the work logically and fluently.  We were also given some very good singing throughout the cast and the house band gave notice of a significant improvement in quality.  It was an evening that offered much and always served the work well.

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