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19 January, 2013

Sydney Masked Ball: Vocal delights - clunky, ugly, irrelevant production.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013 7.30pm Ballo in Maschera, Verdi 1858

Gustavus - Diego Torre
Amelia - Tamar Iveri
Ankarstrom - José Carbó

Ulrica - Mariana Pentcheva
Oscar - Taryn Feibig
Conductor - Andrea Molino
This was possibly the worst production of any opera I have seen anywhere. The stage set consisted of several large suspended gantries which served little purpose in the action. Ulricas entrance involved one of the platforms but it did not quite reach the floor so a folding set of airline-type steps were needed to get the fortune teller to her clamouring supporters. There was a digital TV screen at the rear of the stage. This showed images which constantly drew attention away from the stage drama and towards third world poverty, warfare, global warming, flesh, sex and depravity. In the same way, during the introduction music we saw projections of everything from Hiroshima to crashing surf all framed within human flesh, young and nubile. None of this seemed to have anything to do with the story of Ballo which is a masterpiece libretto based on historical figures.

The chorus and most principal singers were dressed in unisex numbered blue suits. They also wore tight plastic head-masks partially obscuring their ears, something of a disadvantage in opera some might think, and especially uncomfortable in summer. For unknown reasons Gustavus wore a mask from the beginning of Act I. The production had elements of The Jetsons and the Munsters set in the Tardis of Doctor Who. There was smoke and gas masks to the fore in the finale ... quite tasteless in my view. Several members of chorus were coughing uncontrollably as Gustavus Rex perished from abdominal blood loss mid-stage with only one last gasping aria to go.

I found it hard to find anything beautiful in the production to match the beauty of Verdis music. Despite this, there were some audience members who loved it ! I suppose you cant please everybody all the time. The singing was first rate with three singers new to me. Mr Torre has a ringing high tenor voice and commanding stage presence. Well matched was his Amelia, Ms Iveri who had shades of Tebaldi in a fine dramatic soprano with elegant pitch-accurate pianissimo. Ms Fiebig had all that it takes to carry off the demanding if contradictory role of Oscar. Showing his usual star qualities was Jose Carbo as Secretary of State, Ankestrom (or Renato as the companys libretto seemed unsure which version of the story they were using). Ms Pentcheva as the fortune teller had an excellent low register but sounded tinny on high notes, reminding us of what a loss Bernadette Cullen is in this part to the opera world.

There was a talk before the opera explaining the production for those who like that sort of thing. I always like to see operas cold. If the production is not self explanatory from the text of the opera, classical period costume and behaviour then no explanation is going to convince me. And here we have a production with bits and pieces, major and minor themes, yet much of it taking focus away from the raw emotions of the operas plot.

The tenor/soprano duet was magnificent and received a tumultuous applause, like a hat trick or a major tennis win and it was all of these, or their operatic equivalent. The chorus was split between loyal subjects and the basso conspirators, all doing justice to the glorious score. The orchestra was also a star on the night under Maestro Molino.

The national Australian opera company seems to have a jinx with this opera. Ballo was subject of some union action some years ago as I recall while the present opening happened on the very same week as the Metropolitan broadcast of a newly updated version from New York, beamed into cinemas around the world with some of the best singers of the era competing for our opera dollar. But there is nothing like being there, as the Met broadcasts always state in their promotion.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..