“Are you enjoying the performance?”
This snippet of conversation, overheard in the foyer of the Four Seasons Centre during the first intermission, just about sums up the audience response to the COC’s revival of the Berlin Staatsoper’s 2008 production of A Masked Ball. Tonight’s performance was really about the singing, and sadly, nothing else.
A Masked Ball was controversial even in its time. The opera’s anarchist plot, which was based on the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, rattled Verdi’s censors to the point that he was forced to rework his libretto and set the events in 17th century Boston. Presumably, American politics seemed distant and exotic enough to appease the growing unease over issues of sedition suggested in the murder of a popular, if flawed, monarch. The Berlin Staatsoper production of A Masked Ball which sees a revival tonight, capitalizes on this American content, setting the events in a nightculb in Miami, during the swinging 60s, with echoes of the Kennedy assassination sketched in through costume choices. The historical allusion would be powerful if it had been followed through with some consistency. Sadly, neither the sets, nor the costumes, nor the stage direction suggested more than a flippant gesture towards this key moment in American history.
The decision to set the entire events of the opera in a nightclub in Miami led to many an unfortunate dissonance between the action, the libretto, and the visual metaphors on stage. For example, Act II, which takes place in a public place of execution, is set in the selfsame nightclub, with two criminals dangling from the rafters. To add to the confusion, one of the dangling corpses (the puppets were given a routine shake so we could see them dance a bit) was a character who had just been pardoned in Act I. When the distraught Amelia passionately sang of the corpse’s “staring eyes” burning terror and guilt into her soul, we were forced to wonder again, since the dangling puppet had a bag over its head. The devil is, no doubt, in the details.
Despite being forced to sing the bulk of the opera in pajamas, the soloists in this evening’s performance managed to bring the power and passion of Verdi to the stage in no uncertain terms. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Amelia was a tour de force in virtuosic and dramatic mastery. Her “Morrò ma prima in grazia” was so exquisite that one sat there with eyes brimming, covered in goose bumps, and unable to breathe. Her voice brought this opera home, and allowed the audience to transcend their frustration at an otherwise inept production. Dimitri Pittas, as Riccardo, is at his best when playing a gallant playboy. Although Mr. Pittas’s voice is certainly a powerhouse of emotion and skill, sadly, his onstage presence does not always deliver the depths required of his role. Against the complex, passionate Amelia, this Riccardo often came off as little more than a schoolboy. On the other hand, Roland Wood, as Renato, overpowered us with his perfectly controlled yet terrifying vocal presence; he was the very epitome of the jilted husband, enraged by betrayal.
This was certainly a very interesting night at the opera, not in the least because it forced us to grapple with the question of what makes good opera. We must applaud the COC on its decision to stage more radical, border-crossing productions of the classics, but let us hope that their future choices will demonstrate a more astute understanding of the complex relationship that is the Gesamtkunstwerk of opera.