A Stage Direction to Forget
Verdi's 'Un ballo in maschero' in Bologna,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
The Bologna Teatro Comunale inaugurated its 2015 season with a much awaited production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera on 11 January 2015. It is not an entirely new production. The stage director (Damiano Michieletto), a rising star in the worldwide wild operatic firmament, and his close collaborators Paolo Fantin (stage sets), Carla Teti (costumes) and Alessandro Carletti (lighting) had presented Un ballo at La Scala in 2013. There, they had received resounding boos. They undertook to revise the production drastically, however, before showing it in Bologna under a different conductor and a new cast.
Michieletto set Un ballo during an American presidential electoral campaign. This irritated the audience at La Scala (Different Styles, 11 June 2013), as it is well known that the period and the location of Un ballo were originally the murder of a Swedish King in 1792 (Verdi's intention) and the assassination of an improbable Boston Governor in the late seventeenth century (as authorized by the Papal State censorship for the 17 February 1859 premiere at Rome's Teatro Apollo).
Recently, in Piacenza, Palermo and Macerata, Un ballo was set in Dallas on 22 November 1963 and in Madrid in today's Spain — a coup to restore the Franco regime. What matters is that politics and passion are intertwined in this ambivalent opera which is midway in Verdi's career: on the one hand, there are still echoes of Donizetti (such as a coloratura lyric soprano in a trouser role), on the other, the organization in long scenes (more than in individual musical numbers) tends towards later musikdrama.
Michieletto changed a few things in the dramaturgy in setting the opera for Bologna (eg the beginning of the second act). But the staging is still basically old and quite vulgar. In addition, the huge and very heavy sets imposed to change the original organization of scenes and music: the second scene of the first act is merged with the second act. As a result, the first act becomes a short counterpointed and quite light prologue, and the second act with its marvelous duet loses its integrity as a unitary musical and dramatic piece. In short, this is a stage direction to forget.
Luckily, in Bologna, Un ballo had magnificent musical direction. Michele Mariotti was in the pit, instead of Daniele Rustioni (who conducted Un ballo at La Scala in 2013). Mariotti is young but already well known internationally. Whereas Rustioni had followed traditional canons, Mariotti made Un ballo a violent opera about interpersonal relationships and politics, of betrayed basic values such as friendship and love, of physical passion and guilt. He also underlined the 'light' moments (such as the introduction, the quintet E' Scherzo od è Follia and the lusty atmosphere of the ball scene when the crime is consummated) so as to further show the violent and tragic nature of the opera's core. Under his direction, the orchestra is, at times, protagonist of the drama and, at times, just commentator.
Mariotti had a pretty good cast at his disposal: Luca Salsi (a well rounded Renato) and Maria José Siri (a tormented Amelia). Elena Manistina as Ulrica and Beatriz Díaz as Oscar were also pretty good. The protagonist (Riccardo) was Gregory Kunde. He is, no doubt, a great artist who has managed his voice very well as time has gone by, even in spite of some health problems. He transmigrated from light coloratura tenor at the Rossini Opera Festival in 1992 to the heaviest Verdi parts such as Otello. He has a generous volume but, especially in the first two acts, I would have preferred a Riccardo with a clearer timbre, more agility and a sharper 'natural' B.