Verdi – Un ballo in maschera

ONP Bastille, Tuesday July 10 2007

Conductor: Paul Weigold. Production: Gilbert Deflo. Riccardo: Marcelo Alvarez. Renato: Ludovic Tézier. Amelia: Angela Brown. Ulrica: Elena Manisitina. Oscar: Camilla Tilling. Silvano: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Sam: Michail Schelomianski. Tom: Scott Wilde. Giudice: Pascal Meslé. Servo d’Amelia: Nicolas Marie.

“C’était pas mauvais, mais c’était ennuyeux”. “On reste sur sa faim”.

Those two comments, heard after the show, just about sum up this disappointing end to our season. It was one of those evenings when a decent cast could have done a better job with a different conductor and director.

I like my Verdi brisk, bouncy and with a certain bite to it – rawness, even. Paul Weigold played it like a late romantic chamber work: rounded sounds, languorous tempi, legato, rubato, all in all a sort of expansive soupiness (beautifully executed, notwithstanding) that at best brought to mind Mendelssohn, at worst Rachmaninov. There was no dramatic tension, no forward drive, just a lot of lingering.

As to the production… It was hard to believe that it was by the same director as the Bastille’s excellent Amour des Trois Oranges. Deflo’s idea (possibly because the creation of Un ballo was just about contemporary with Abraham Lincoln’s election) was to set it in the US at the time of the civil war, with Riccardo as Lincoln. The trouble is, having had the idea, he left the development to his set and costume designers and made no attempt, it seemed, to direct the singers to act. So it was “stand and deliver” again - and again, with no dramatic tension, no forward drive, just a lot of lingering. And for some reason, despite the Bastille’s elaborate machinery, scene changes were long, holding up the action.

If there had been more acting, the funereal sets and overall deathly atmosphere might have been effective, not just gloomy. The stage was, throughout, empty (i.e. no backdrops or sets at the sides) and dark. The first scene took place in a white marble parliamentary amphitheatre, floored in glossy black, with the goodies in mufti on the left, the baddies in Confederate coats (or were they Keystone Cops uniforms?) on the right, and in the middle Riccardo on a throne identical to Lincoln’s at the memorial, with a giant marble eagle overhead. Ulrica (Elena Manistina blacked up for the occasion) was surrounded by black girls with plantation turbans and shawls in an empty space, floored with what looked like coal dust, marked out by giant black columns ending in snakes’ heads (though my neighbour said they looked like fancy bath taps) and a row of flames. The orrido campo was even emptier, with just two columns (true to the libretto) topped with rapacious-looking black eagles.

Chez Renato and Amelia was, as the FT critic pointed out, cosily appointed with a sort of municipal funeral monument to Riccardo: a black granite affair with curving bench seats to each side, a cenotaph crowned with a globe and eagles and fronted with Riccardo in white marble and, as luck would have it, an urn – just the thing for casting lots. Just before the ball, we found Riccardo musing on his scene-one throne in the empty amphitheatre. And finally, the ball took place in a (very splendid) mausoleum, with black colonnades to the rear and sides and parallel rows of majestic granite steles, crowned with eagles and large, frosted crystal torches. The dancers wore pretty commedia dell’arte costumes in black and white, the guests funeral black.

Marcelo Alvarez, having cancelled his earlier appearances, was eagerly awaited by his online fans as Riccardo. Either he is too lightweight, too lyrical a tenor for the part, or on Tuesday evening he was still sick or just plain tired. At the end of the first half, I thought that at the start of the second he might have the management announce he was ill. But no. Apparently he’d been saving his voice – marking, it seemed to me. Overall, our impression was of great potential on an off day. There was no éclat at the top and almost nothing at all, beyond a whisper, at the bottom. He didn’t look remotely like a US president, more like an escapee from Le temps des Gitans, currently alternating with Un ballo.

We were supposed to get Aprile Millo as Amelia, but she cancelled after being booed on her first night. I quite liked Angela Brown: I’m a sucker for big voices. But I can understand people worrying about the beating vibrato in the middle and lower ranges, and the top is thin and metallic. She’s no great actress, not yet at any rate.

The remaining three leads were probably more satisfactory overall. Elena Manistina, whose career I’ve been following, is unusually young for the Ulrica-Azucena circuit and, as result brings a brighter, less chesty voice to it. She’s thoroughly reliable apart from her Italian pronunciation, which is sometimes oddly Russian. Tézier was, as usual, the thinking man’s baritone but a wooden sort of actor. The role of Oscar is one that I could totally live without, but as all the reviews said, it was prettily sung by a Mozartian-sounding Camilla Tilling.

So, as the Bastille Day fireworks are threatened by wet weather, the season ends with something of a damp squib. Verdi doesn't fare very well these days, does he?

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