VERDI Un ballo in maschera
Heike Scheele’s design for Munich’s new 2016 Ballo takes no prisoners in terms of stage direction-obeying literalism. We get an abstract unit set in the style of 1940s Hollywood (think Hitchcock’s Notorious) dominated by a large double bed, and giant staircases going nowhere to the sky and running up from understage. The names, but not the geography, are from Verdi’s revised Boston version (Riccardo, Renato etc) but Johannes Erath’s production makes use of researches made for the opera’s original Swedish setting.
Piotr Beczaa’s Riccardo looks uncannily, but relevantly, like Anton Walbrook’s ballet chief in the Powell/Pressburger Red Shoes movie. His ruler is self- and death-obsessed. Events that steer his fate (a pistol for suicide, the visit to Ulrica’s prophesies, the meeting with Amelia) are introduced visibly here for him by Okka von der Damerau’s seductive Ulrica and Sofia Fomina’s bell-hop Oscar. Everything takes place in the single play area of this abstract set, so all disguises, and naturalistic scene settings, are banished: not a single mask at this ball (even Oscar doffs his wig to reveal that ‘he’ is a girl). The Amelia/Riccardo Act 2 meeting takes place in the bedroom with Renato asleep until he gets up to appear in the scene. Acting doubles for Riccardo and Amelia appear in this and other scenes to illustrate the characters’ private fears and problems, and a ventriloquist’s dummy represents Riccardo in sailor suit.
It may seem weird at first – and you could argue that it’s literally pretentious – but the result is a refreshing concentration on the drama of personality and illusion that Verdi and Somma produced. This creators’ achievement has sometimes been obscured in recent times by natural curiosity about – and desire to recreate – the censored original version. And, as Erath’s production suggests, by an over-operatic distraction with masks rather than characters. Certainly many of the current DVD rivals from Madrid or the Met look like gilding the would-be Grand Opera lily in comparison.
Musically things are more than fine. Beczaa pulls off this one hell of a tenor role – does Riccardo ever get a break? – with style and confidence. Harteros gives her usual tightly focused emotional performance. Petean is triumphantly consistent despite being faced with many of the production’s non-realistic situations in which to act. And with Maestro Mehta’s spacious tempos for his arias – but they and a general lack of over-heated emotion fit this visual interpretation well. With good sound and helpful shot selection the release is strongly recommended.