Verdi – Un ballo in maschera
Amelia – Liudmyla Monastyrska
Riccardo – Charles Castronovo
Ulrica – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Renato – George Petean
Oscar – Mirjam Mesak
Silvano – Andrew Hamilton
Samuel – Bálint Szabó
Tom – Alexander Köpeczi
Un giudice – Jonas Hacker
Un servo d’Amelia – Granit Musliu
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Ivan Repušić.
Stage director – Johannes Erath.
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany. Sunday, November 6th, 2022.
Tonight’s Un ballo in maschera was a revival of Johannes Erath’s 2016 staging. I saw it when it was new and must admit that it left me rather bewildered back then. I was interested, then, to see how it would look on a second viewing. Tonight, was also notable for Charles Castronovo’s debut in the role of Riccardo. Castronovo has managed his career impeccably, moving from Tamino and Nemorino, on to Alfredo, and now to Riccardo, while next year moving on to the delayed and highly-anticipated Don Carlo at this very address. He is a model for younger singers in how to allow the voice to grow naturally and take on roles at the right time. He was joined by Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia, replacing the originally-scheduled Anja Harteros, George Petean as Renato, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Ulrica.
Erath updates the action to what seems to be the 1920s. The action appears to take place in the world of a New York mob, with Riccardo as a mob boss who is protective over his people. This provides a clever framework for the action, particularly so as it suggests a world fraught with risks, where internal battles for power mean that the position of the boss is never secure, and figures in evening dress constantly circulate around the stage brandishing guns. So far, so clear. And yet, Erath juxtaposes the action by having a bed on stage where Riccardo appears to be dreaming at the start of the evening, mirrored by another bed on the ceiling. Later, we see Amelia and Riccardo have their meeting at the ‘orrido campo’ in that bedroom. The room itself has an ornate staircase that appears to lead nowhere, yet at the same time characters are able to enter through a door at the top and also from the basement. Is this all Riccardo’s dream? Is he in purgatory? Or does it represent a world that’s closed, from which there’s no escape? Certainly, having the glamourous figure of Ulrica perambulating around in the latter part of the show, suggests that she may have some supernatural influence on the events. It feels that Erath is intent on adding multiple layers that cloud the narrative, leaving us doubting what’s real and what’s imagined. Perhaps this is the point and illustrates the paranoia that comes with mob membership. And yet, it’s hard not to think of Michieletto’s Rosenkavalier last night and how successful that was in making us feel so many emotions. Indeed, what tonight’s Ballo has highlighted is the difference between a competent stage director and a great one. Erath seems to want to add extraneous layers to a narrative and a concept that could actually have worked even more strongly without them.
That said, this seems like an eminently revivable staging – particularly so as, given this was a repertoire evening at the Staatsoper, it would have been mounted on relatively few rehearsals. It was fluently dispatched by the entire cast, there was never a sense that anyone was in the wrong place, and indeed it felt much clearer than when I saw it back in the premiere run. That care in presentation was also notable in the orchestra, conducted by Ivan Repušić. He led a reading built on long, cantabile lines. Indeed, it felt that the orchestra was ‘singing’ as much as the principals did, focusing on a striking beauty of line. This wasn’t to the detriment of crisp attack, though. Throughout, the unanimity of the approach was unmistakable – the orchestra responded as one to Repušić, not a single muffled entry all night. There was some highly eloquent playing from the solo cello in ‘Morrò – ma prima in grazia’ and string intonation was true throughout. Repušić kept the evening flowing nicely along, with wonderfully swift tempi, yet wasn’t afraid to pull back and allow the principals through. The chorus was also at one with his approach, and there were no issues with stage-pit coordination. In the Ulrica scene, the ladies’ chorus was positioned off stage and this did have implications for balance, as they were inaudible from my seat towards the front of the Parkett. However, elsewhere they sang with agreeable blend, a striking depth of tone from the basses.
This was my second encounter with Monastyrska’s Amelia – the first was at an unfortunate evening back in 2015, that I would prefer not to have to recall. There is something quite honest and endearing about her stage presence, there’s a genuineness that I found completely appropriate for her character. Vocally, however, it was a bit hit and miss. She can certainly produce the volume, and the voice is founded in a rich and resonant chest register that leads to an agreeably refulgent middle. The top, however, is rather chalky, though doesn’t lack in volume. She also approached her soaring initial entries as more staccato than with a rising legato. Intonation is also troublesome, sometimes flat, sometimes sharp, and frequently skirting around the note rather than sitting on it. She did however pull back on the volume where required, and sang her ‘Morrò’ with feeling. Monastyrska is no doubt a generous and genuine colleague, and there was a wholesomeness to her performance tonight that felt charming.
Hard to believe that this was a role debut for Castronovo as Riccardo as he sang it with total authority. His wonderfully handsome tenor, rich in tone, is in fabulous shape. Unlike so many who’ve gone before him, he sounded as fresh at the end as he did at the start. His ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’ was dispatched with endlessly long lines, shaded with love and care, the top ringing out with exciting ease. Indeed, it was wonderful to hear the top spinning so excitingly over the course of the evening. Castronovo also caressed the text, using it as the starting point to his line and those warm Italian vowels to colour the tone. He turned the corners nicely in ‘Dunque, signori, aspettovi’ and throughout managed the passaggio fully, the voice even from top to bottom.
Petean gave us an excellent Renato. The voice is so completely firm, good in size, powering a column of sound straight into the auditorium. The top is seriously impressive, seemingly defying gravity in its ease of production, and the voice also seems to be completely even from top to bottom, no loss of quality here. His ‘eri tu’ was sung with both power and also with genuine introspection and feeling. The voice, throughout, sounding completely healthy. Most impressive.
Lemieux made a seriously striking impression as Ulrica, her opening C on ‘Re’ seemingly coming from the depths of the earth, it was so big and resonant in tone. She also passed through the registers with admirable smoothness and made so much of the text. Her commanding vocalism, the deliciously resonant richness of tone, meant that she most certainly held the stage – and we listened. Mirjam Mesak sang Oscar in a bright soprano with an easy top and a genuine trill. There was a smile to the tone that I found most agreeable. The remaining roles were dispatched to the high standards one has come to expect at this, one of the world’s leading lyric theatres.
This may have been a repertoire evening at the Staatsoper, but it was indeed a special one. Erath’s staging had been fluently rehearsed and seemed much more logical and cogent that when I saw it when new. The quality of the orchestral playing was indeed at the highest level and Repušić’s conducting gave the evening both irresistible momentum and the moments of lyrical repose called for in the score. The singing throughout was satisfying, and in a significant proportion of the cast, much more than that. The evening was received with a generous ovation from the Munich public, who expressed their delight at frequent intervals during the course of the evening.