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01 May, 2015

Masked Ball at the Met - April 2015

Ballo in Maschera.  Met Opera NYC.  Thursday 23rd April 2015
This was one of the best opera performances I have seen in a long time.  A dream cast was combined with James Levine and his marvellous orchestra and chorus in a modern, clever and eclectic production by David Alden utilising 20th century d├ęcor and costumes with a mock-Tiepolo sky-scape of winged angel and four-horse chariot on high.  While a long way from the iconic traditional Met production, the 20th century update seems to work (at least second time around for me). 
Piotr Beczala (King), Dmitry Hvorostovsky (Renato), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia), Dolora Zajick (Ulrica) and Heidi Stober (Oscar).  Every one of these artists was superlative and deserving of a paragraph on detail.  Mr Hvorostovsky’s talents are well known and he was true to his reputation, often singing two lines on the one breath, hitting baritonal high notes with more ease than some tenors and acting the metamorphosis from the king’s friend to foe with stunning drama.  Ms Radvanovsky has the most ‘projected’ voice I have heard in a long while, yet she also uses subtlety and diminuendos with style and flare.  Mr Beczala is one of the best tenors in the world today.  His youthful good looks and dramatic talents combine with his vocal confidence at the high registers used frequently in Ballo.  He sings without forcing and often smiles during his delivery. 
Popular American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was a splendid fortune teller, taking command of the entire space during her scene.  She even produces a skull from her leather handbag, a theme which is repeated with the skull masks of the conspirators in the last act.  We also see palm reading, playing cards and blank pages torn off writing pads by innominate public servants or scribes at innominate desks with innominate expressions and stylised movements.  The king’s court has formal waiters, soldiers, policy analysts, lobbyists, etc amongst the chorus as well as some dancers providing lots of movement on stage.  And conspirators, of course. 
The essence of the opera is that the king mocks prophecies of doom, saying the love of his people and God will protect him.  If this happened we would not have much of an opera!  Ulrica’s fortune-telling cards say that fate alone will decided events and humans are powerless to stop it with our frailties. 
Heidi Stober was a perfect Oscar in a white suit, sometimes winged, suitably spunky in a unisex way.  Like her colleagues, the voice soared into the auditorium on the numerous occasions required by the score.  His relationship with the king gives a gay side to the character and the death scene is played as such. 
Commentaries from some quarters recently complain that the Met is playing Verdi with poor quality casts and this in turn has led to poor attendances.  I find this hard to justify and would report exactly the opposite.  Poor attendances have occurred  in opera seasons around the world in recent years and the causes are complex.  This Friday opening seemed to have few empty seats.  During April several performances of Aida (conducted by Domingo) were virtually full as was Ernani (with Domingo playing the baritone role), leaving Don Carlos playing to less than full houses, probably due to the nature of the opera rather than the cast (which included Frittoli, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto, Morris with Yonghoon Lee an excellent tenor in the title role).  Sadly sickness and substitution supervened on several occasions, notably when Michael Fabiano as Edgardo was brought into Lucia from Philadelphia at a few hours notice.  His single performance without rehearsal received a major accolade from the New York Times. 
The standard of operas at the Met remains very high from my experience … but I cannot say the same for operettas.  The Merry Widow was a disappointment and just did not seem to come to life as it can with the right chemistry.  The text was a very poor alternative translation and at times the performers just did not seem to want to be there.  The voices seemed under powered and amplification was inadequate to understand the dialogue without reading the subtitles which was not well synchronised anyway.  The Met should probably stick to opera! 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
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