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Un ballo in Tinseltown

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
02/02/2014 -  & February 5, 8, 11, 14, 16, 20, 22, 2014
Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Dmitri Pittas (Riccardo), Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia), Roland Wood (Renato), Simone Osborne (Oscar), Elena Manistina (Ulrica), Giovanni Battista Parodi (Tom), Evan Boyer (Samuel), Gregory Dahl (Silvano), John Kriter (Magistrate), Owen McCausland (Amelia’s servant)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Stephen Lord (conductor)
Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (directors), Samantha Seymour (revival director), Barbara Ehnes (set designer), Anja Rabes (costume designer), Olaf Freese (lighting designer)

E. Manistina & D. Pittas (© Michael Cooper)

This production from Berlin’s Staatsoper takes its cue from the American locale Verdi used in response to censorship problems. However, directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have updated the setting to something vaguely 1960s, complete with a Kennedyesque Count Riccardo who appears with a silent “first lady” whose stylish outfit includes a pillbox hat. The whole thing takes place in what seems to be the glittery but tawdry ballroom of an anonymous hotel.

A basic staging problem asserts itself from the start: the Berlin stage where the opera has been performed is obviously narrower than that of the Four Seasons Centre stage, so here the proscenium is narrowed. However, the playing area widens out behind the proscenium, thus rendering parts of the action invisible to various parts of the audience. As a result elements of stage action remain a puzzle - perhaps on purpose? Barely glimpsed busyness seems to have been given attention that ought to have been focused on the lead singers whose locations on stage are often at odds with the relationships they are supposed to be enacting.

Dmitri Pittas seizes hold of his role from the word go - impetuous, boyish, and magnetic. He carries off the difficult Act III aria “Ma se m’è forza perderti” (difficult in that it is introspective and subtle in a spot where Verdi refrained from wowing the audience with a memorable tune). The one bit of the role where strain shows is during the exuberant passage immediately preceding the ball.

Adrianne Pieczonka (like Pittas, making her role debut) makes an instant stunning impression with her entry scene in which her singing is both grand and expressive. She maintains this throughout the performance. It isn’t her fault that many chances for drama are missed by inept blocking.

I rather wish Roland Wood’s grainy baritone had more in the way of Italianate opulence (after all this is one of the plum Verdi baritone roles). Still, he is expressive and has the breath to maintain impressively long lines.

In the short but challenging role of Ulrica one usually finds a mezzo who is good in the higher-lying part of the role or an alto who is better down low. Elena Manistina is in the former category. Ulrica is portrayed as blind, but this doesn’t stop her from attending the masked ball, wandering about swigging out of a bottle. Still, she manages to pour someone else a drink - maybe she is only pretending to be blind? The production gives rise to many such not-very-interesting questions.

Oscar is not a trouser role in this production but, according to the directors’ notes, an agente provocatrice. Simone Osborne vocalizes more than decently as she prances about. Some of the time she seems to be stage-managing the action (maybe). During the masked ball (where she wears a swan dress à la Björk) she falls asleep across the laps of Samuel and Tom - proof of the dullness of the ball, where most people aren’t even wearing masks and end up just sitting on the floor.

Conductor Stephen Lord makes a welcome return. The initial chorus is a bit out of synch, but it is a challenge to co-ordinate orchestra and chorus with the curtain still inexplicably closed. From then on things go very well. The five comprimario roles are ably performed. Orchestra and chorus are in their customary stellar form.

Among many distracting bits of business is some sort of tussle over possession of something or other (a hotel room key?) during Ulrica’s fortune-telling scene. Amelia brings her little son along to “Ulrica’s den” (i.e., the ballroom). The little boy has quite a bit of stage time, as when he draws his father’s lot assigning him the responsibility for shooting Riccardo (and then he gets to pretend-conduct the ensuing vengeance trio “Dunque l’onta di tutti sol una”). A group of supers (all people “of colour”) are hotel staff. At one point they seem to be enacting a tinselly patriotic show on the small stage at stage rear. In the ball scene the same stage sports a small orchestra dressed in “grand ole opry” garb. Ah! America - so shallow and tawdry.

Act II is supposed to take place at the gallows outside the town walls. There is inappropriate but understandable laughter when the curtain goes up and there are two hanged corpses (one male, one female) dangling from the ceiling. Of course we are still in the hotel ballroom in the middle of the night - and in order to carry through the logic (?) of this, everyone is in their pyjamas. This part of the opera demands suspension of disbelief at the best of times as Renato is entrusted to accompany his friend’s anonymous amour who turns out to be his own wife, much to the amusement of a group of conspirators. Staging this like a pyjama party helps to trivialize the whole effort.

The audience at the opening performance warmly applauded the performers, especially Pieczonka and Pittas. But for the production team the applause diminished markedly and there was energetic booing, always the sign of a failure to communicate.

Michael Johnson



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