Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 24 2015

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Concept and Production: Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus). Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Video: Emmanuel Carlier. Gustav III: Riccardo Massi. René Ankarström: Scott Hendricks. Amelia: Monica Zanettin. Ulrica Arfvidsson: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Oscar: Ilse Eerens. Cristiano: Roberto Accurso. Ribbing: Tijl Faveyts. Horn: Carlo Cigni. Un Giudice: Zeno Popescu. Un Servo: Pierre Derhet. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Verdi meets censor
This Ballo, involving a couple of interesting young singers, was musically quite satisfactory overall, and at times excellent.

Scott Hendricks is a baritone I've admired at La Monnaie and the Bastille in the past. Yesterday his singing was fairly blustery (and he looked quite grumpy at the curtain calls), but that was alright, once his character had gone bad. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was as excellent an Ulrica as you'd expect: vocally sumptuous and radiating presence. Ilse Errens had a shaky start but eventually very nearly made Oscar, here played as a woman, a tolerable character - I've said before it's one I could totally live without - I think I once said Oscar should be shot.

Monica Zanettin is particularly interesting: her voice is powerful and dark, sometimes almost plummy, at risk of turning to what my neighbour called "bouillie" - porridge, more or less - but with a strong counteracting graininess. She is also obviously charismatic, not an easy thing to achieve when everyone is masked - see below. "Ecco l'orrido campo" was especially impressive. Vocal and dramatic charisma are what Riccardo Massi, on the other hand, lacked: left to his own devices, he had the awkward, ambling demeanour of a beefy but amiable local butcher or baker. Yet he has, it seems, been a stunt-man and as Radamès at the Met he was described as an "alert actor" so perhaps this was the director's fault. He has an agreeable timbre and seems to reach the high notes with ease, but I did wonder whether he shouldn't be singing Mozart, at this stage, rather than, already, Radamès. The pair of them unfortunately got briefly lost in "Oh, qual soave brivido", a sign, perhaps, of inexperience that threw them for a while afterwards.

As I've often said before, the Monnaie orchestra is good at Verdi, but I found Carlo Rizzi's conducting a bit placid and lacking in nervous energy: zip. The chorus was, however, on cracking form.

Underground car park, 1861
There was nothing intrinsically unworkable about Àlex Ollé's Orwellian concept, for which he was rather grandly credited first, above the conductor, on the website, as if it was going to be something startlingly new and bold, which it wasn't: one stifling totalitarian regime replacing another. The set was the concrete bunker every European house should now have in stock; in this case, quite a handsome one of concentric rectangles, open towards the audience, of dangling square pillars that could be let down to form spaces of various sizes - small, medium, large - in a forest of columns resembling an underground car park - but also recalling period engravings. Dusty grey "period" furniture made a ghostly reference to the 18th century. The lighting was good - changing colour, for example, to red for the "orrido campo". After an opening video of the multiple horrors of the modern world (apart from cat photos on Facebook) projected on a naked body, Gustav the dictator's personality cult was embodied in projections of a gleaming silver head or his masked face.

All the cast, soloists, chorus and extras, wore dusty grey, blue, purple or black suits, numbered across the back, and - as so very often in these updates - strutted round, like super-efficient, super-officious  consultants and secretaries, with briefcases and notepads (which surely, in a production set in the near future, should really have been iPads?). All wore a kind of sci-fi second skull, in latex, that symbolised oppression and must have been very uncomfortable on a warm May afternoon. These rubber masks were only pulled off once, as a sign of rebellion, by Ulrica and her followers.

Extra masks, gleaming silver, were added for the ball, and for the final coup de théâtre, the conspirators pulled on gas masks as, during the pardon, smoke filled the hall under yellow lights, the face on the screen at the rear changed, and Gustav and his court were gassed to death, one and all. So no-one could say Ollé hadn't taken the "maschera" in the title to heart.

This grim concept was, as I said, not unworkable, but surprisingly Ollé did little to help it succeed. As making Gustav a baddie as bad as his successors goes against the grain of the work as is, surely he should have helped Massi act nasty, but, again as I said, the singers, once the concept was established, were left to themselves to play the opera out as if it had been a traditional production in a provincial backwater. That, I think, was a lost opportunity: neither the cast's potential nor the production's was fully realised.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Ecco l'orrido campo".
Followed by "Morro, ma prima in grazia".

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