Political duties, private torments and supernatural undertones are only a few among the elements that intertwine in Verdi's powerful Un ballo in maschera. The latest Royal Opera revival of Mario Martone's 2005 staging opened on 26 June with Daniel Dooner acting as revival director. Despite the fact that its reception hasn't been enthusiastic, this Ballo did offer moments of great artistry, thanks especially to the contribution of Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas.
First of all, it was the staging that monopolized the critics' attention. The Guardian's Tim Ashley comments positively on Martone's decision to update the action to the aftermath of the American Civil War. 'Setting the opera against the backdrop of a society in which new-found progressive zeal is threatened by a prejudiced far right emphasises the political and moral complexities at its centre', Ashley states.
And yet, the main trouble with this revival seems to be that Martone's interesting conception does not fulfil expectations. Some critics noticed that the choreography was particularly bland and stage props were inadequate. For instance, Richard Fairman of the Financial Times refers to the ineffective use of space and props, writing that 'there is a lot of futile toying with symbolism before the evening reaches the spectacle of the closing ball'. Along the same lines, Nick Kimberley of the Evening Standard laments the lack of engagement with such a complex opera, blaming it especially on 'the stage language, which remains bound by hoary convention'.
For George Hall of The Stage, the whole staging is 'undistinguished' and it is rather redolent of an old-fashioned way of directing a production. Yet, Hall admits that the finale is indeed a visual spectacle, with the audience first and then the partygoers reflected in a hanging mirror.
Together with an unconvincing staging, it was the interaction between the protagonists that left the critics with ambivalent thoughts. Hilary Finch of The Times complains about a somewhat clumsy relationship between the two lovers: 'The new Riccardo and Amelia, Ramón Vargas and Angela Marambio, relate to each other more awkwardly than their mutual infatuation demands'.
Nonetheless, it was the vocal performance that redeemed this Ballo. In particular Vargas' interpretation offered the audience an example of how a high level of artistry can make a production shine even when other elements are not equally outstanding.
Vargas' take on the character, together with his delicate tone, make his Riccardo different from the way it has been in sung in the past. As tenor himself explains in a recent interview with Dominic McHugh, Verdi had in mind something distinct for the protagonist of Un ballo: 'It's something that came in during the 1960s and 70s: people with big, less flexible voices started singing this role, but it's not correct. Almost all the opera is written in a bel canto style. For instance, I have to sing several trills in a row: bigger voices can't do it, and surely Verdi wouldn't have accepted them not doing it. I don't want to say that my voice is perfect for it and nobody else's is – that's not what I mean at all – but I think I have the capacity to sing what Verdi wrote. For me, that's important'.
It is clear that Vargas' approach to his character convinced the critics. The FT showed to be truly enthusiastic about the tenor's vocal rendition: 'He never forces his tone, phrases with elegance, and sings with a heartfelt tenderness that makes Riccardo, the insouciant governor of Boston, a real charmer'.
The Guardian also notices that Vargas' interaction with Renato highlights powerfully the political undertones of the narrative: 'Vargas, a supremely elegant vocalist, is wonderful as the governor whose liberal idealism manifests itself in a dangerous carelessness'.
In addition, the same critic praises Vargas' best friend and antagonist in love, Renato: 'Jenis, whose tone mixes silk with metal, is near-definitive in his portrayal of a man whose intense loyalty can turn to detestation'. The Times also underlines Jenis's menacious and resonant tone, even if noticing that at times his voice seems to be 'lodged too far back in the throat for its own good'.
The reception of Jenis' interpretation wasn't univocal though. The Stage is not satisfied by the baritone's lack of 'solid low notes'; the FT is even harsher, and states that Dalibor Jenis and Angela Marambio both 'have big voices and deploy them like weapons of mass destruction'.
The FT's comments on soprano Angela Marambio's harmful timbre are echoed by other critics. Her performance was the most problematic since too often her powerful tone lacked both precision of pitch and dynamic refinement. The Times writes that her 'too heavy fortissimo lunges into the top of her register almost cause the mirrors to crack', and The Stage laments that as Amelia she is 'not always in control of her enormous soprano'.
As for the Ulrica, Elena Manistina did a satisfying, if not excellent, job. Many critics found her acting not convincing enough, even if her interpretation of the menacing sorcereress was powerfully conveyed by her gloomy mezzo soprano timbre. The Times comments that she managed to bring 'Slavic substance and a sinister basso profundo to the part of Ulrica'.
In contrast to a deeply dark Ulrica, Anna Christy delighted the audience in the travesti role of Oscar. The Times describes her as 'stratospheric', and The Stage is very positive too. The Evening Standard saw her as the pivot of the whole performance thanks to her charisma and liveliness: 'Oscar seems to drive everything which goes on around him/her', Nick Kimberley writes. Only the FT notices that her vocal performance resulted somewhat weak compared to the other big voices on stage.
As for the pit, Maurizio Benini's interpretation received mixed responses. For The Guardian, the orchestra managed to bring the score alive, showing an incredible richness of colours and playing with 'implacable momentum and passion'. The FT noticed that tempi were too slow at the beginning but, as the performance went on, the conductor was able to colour 'every melody as only an Italian can'.
The Times and The Stage's reflections on Benini's work are different though. For Hilary Finch, the conductor 'strive[d] in the pit to find the momentum as yet lacking on stage'. Along the same lines, George Hall is not satisfied by what was for him a blank interpretation of the score, and he comments that the orchestra reached 'a level of decent routine, but not much more'.
Overall, this Ballo is not a homogenous spectacle, due to some unconvincing details in the vocal department and a problematic staging. Yet, Ramón Vargas' presence on stage provides for such a level of artistry that makes it impossible to leave the opera house disappointed.
Un ballo in maschera is at the Royal Opera House until 17 July.
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore
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