On the Wave of Pleasure: Un ballo in maschera at the Teatro alla Scala

Verdi – Un ballo in maschera

Amelia – Sondra Radvanovsky
Riccardo – Francesco Meli
Ulrica – Okka von der Damerau
Renato – Ludovic Tézier
Oscar – Federica Guida
Silvano – Liviu Holender
Samuel – Sorin Coliban
Tom – Park Jongmin
Un giudice – Costantino Finucci
Un servo d’Amelia – Paride Cataldo

Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Giampaolo Bisanti.
Stage director – Marco Arturo Marelli.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Sunday, May 22nd, 2022.

Sometimes, having not listened to the work for a while, one can forget just how many memorable melodies there are in Un ballo in maschera.  The opera is one giant earworm.  What a pleasure, then, to be able to see this new production of Ballo at the Teatro alla Scala, that most emblematic of Italian opera houses, of which today was the last performance of the run.  The staging was confided to Marco Arturo Marelli, and the house engaged a cast composed of international and Italian artists, today under the direction of Giampaolo Bisanti, who shared conducting duties for the run with Nicola Luisotti, with both taking over from the originally scheduled Riccardo Chailly, who withdrew for health reasons. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Marelli gives us a staging that looks good.  Sets, by Marelli himself, are extremely traditional, as indeed are Marelli’s own costumes.  It was about as far from last night’s Troyens as one could possibly imagine.  The set is arranged around a central tunnel, the walls of which opened up in various ways to providing contrasting settings for each scene.  Ulrica’s den has a large rock with skulls underneath; while the ‘orrido campo’ has a few more craggy rocks, combined with a mysterious figure dressed in black wearing a mask that looks like it was used in one of the Scream movies.  This figure occasionally pops up in the action, notably playing a violin in the final act, but it’s hard to know what its significance was other than a generalized personification of death.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Personenregie consisted of a considerable amount of standing and emoting, hands outstretched to the front.  Although, it must be mentioned that Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia and Ludovic Tézier’s Renato’s big confrontation was electric, simply because they genuinely engaged with each other in a way that wasn’t always the case in the remainder of the staging.  The best of Marelli’s staging came in the final act – he populated the ball scene with the chorus all crammed together, thereby making it difficult for Renato to find Riccardo to murder him.  Though I’m still wondering why Marelli used images of the Scala auditorium on the stage and put the house lights on for a short while. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Musically, it was much more satisfactory.  Radvanovsky gave us a singing lesson today.  The voice has such apparently limitless resonance.  It fills the auditorium, surrounding the spectator in a golden glow.  It soars with such ease, just as it did in her opening Act 2 aria, where the ascent to the high C rang out, the breath control immaculate.  Radvanovsky’s ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’ was also sung in seemingly endless phrases, the tone beautifully shaded, the text used to explore and bring out meaning.  Naturally, the audience responded with ecstatic bravas. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Similarly, Tézier gave us a masterclass in Verdian singing this afternoon.  The tone is so firm from top to bottom and, as with Radvanovsky, carries through the house with ease.  His ‘eri tu’ was a real highlight – the breath control impeccable, legato smooth, both of which were combined with a profound understanding of the text.  Tézier paid particularly close attention to those Italian double consonants far too often ignored.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

I must admit that Riccardo is the best thing I’ve heard from Francesco Meli.  His tenor isn’t the biggest instrument, particularly next to his colleagues, but it’s clear that he’s been working very hard on his technique.  The top was much firmer that it’s sounded in the past – although there’s still a tendency to approach notes from below.  There were some signs of fatigue towards the end, with the tone thinning out.  That said, his legato throughout the evening was immaculate and he certainly lasted the course in a way that many before him haven’t managed to. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

The remainder of the cast reflected the standards one would expect at this legendary address.  Federica Guida gave us a bright toned and agile Oscar, complete with a decent trill.  Okka von der Damerau brought her mahogany-toned mezzo to the role of Ulrica, crossing the passaggio with ease, the registers all fully integrated.  Alberto Malazzi’s chorus had a very good afternoon.  Ensemble was watertight, and they filled the house with warm and generous tone.

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

The Scala orchestra was on thrilling form for Bisanti’s dynamic baton.  His conducting was near-ideal in terms of tempi – the exception being an extremely slow ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’, although Radvanovsky sustained it magnificently, and the cello solo was played with haunting elegance.  The brass was on thrilling form, pealing out tremendously in this closing pages of Act 1.  String intonation was spot-on throughout the entire evening.  This really is a band at the top of its game these days. 

Photo: © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Today’s Ballo was a highly enjoyable afternoon in the theatre.  It was a genuine privilege to see the excellence of the Verdi singing that Radvanovsky and Tézier gave us, while Meli gave the most satisfying performance I have seen from him yet.  Marelli’s staging did the job, and while it didn’t exactly contain a huge amount in the way of insight, it did what it needed to do.  With some highly idiomatic conducting, extremely satisfying singing throughout the cast, and house forces at their considerable best, this really was a performance that was worthy of the history of this great house.  The Scala audience responded with euphoric and prolonged applause.

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