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April 20, 2014
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sad travesty at the Colón: Ballo destroyed

By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald
Alex Ollé offers failed transformation of Verdi’s opera into Orwellian dystopia


Giuseppe Verdi often had trouble with the Austrian censure over some of the libretti of his operas, which abounded in conflicts with the establishment, but surely the worst case is Un ballo in maschera, for it deals with magnicide. And this was clearly unpalatable, for the future Italy in 1859 was still under the aegis of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the North, the Papal States around Rome and the Bourbons in Naples, though Garibaldi was looming in the horizon. The subject was the murder of Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792 by the Count of Anckarström.
Curiously enough, it came from a drama by Eugène Scribe, a most prolific French librettist, and Auber wrote a successful opera on it (Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué). So did Saverio Mercadante (with less success). Verdi chose his librettist badly, for Bonaventura Somma’s text is famous for its irrelevancies, poorly contrived situations and unfortunate phrases. But it is also true that both writer and musician were sick and tired of pressures by the censors, and the opera was in progress — so to speak — between 1857 and 1859.
Three different titles before the definitive one: Gustavo III, Una vendetta in domino and Adelia degli Adinari. And three varied places and times: Sweden in 1792, Florence in Guelph times, and colonial Boston; the latter became the one finally accepted by Rome’s Apollo Theatre. The King of Naples released Verdi from his contract (he had been threatened with jail) but under the obligation of offering another opera the following year (it was Simone Boccanegra in its original version, though it had been premièred at Venice in 1857).
The grumblings of poet and musician against the censors have been preserved for posterity; but perhaps the saddest thing was that Verdi abandoned, for this flawed Ballo, a King Lear that could have been marvellous. However, his genius prevails, and a lot in the opera is great music. The sense of drama is there in Renato’s aria Eri tu or in Amelia’s two arias, the melodic flow of the duet between soprano and tenor is irresistible, some orchestral passages are quite advanced in its harmony (almost expressionistic), the conspirators’ sarcasm at the end of Act 2 is a trouvaille, etc. And the page Oscar’s funny music, quite unaware of the tragedy around him, provides an effective contrast. So Ballo has become a repertoire opera for great singers. It has had ups and downs at the Colón, especially when the Malvinas War precluded the visit of a starry cast led by Pavarotti, but there were moments to be treasured, such as Cornell MacNeil’s fantastic Renato (1960, 1965). And twice our city saw the Swedish version that Verdi couldn’t première: 1959 (the Amphitheatre, Parque Centenario) and 1970 (Colón, staged by Franco Enriquez).
I find it so much better than the forced Boston locale, but it needs some retouching: it isn’t enough to simply call Gustavo the Boston Riccardo; Count Anckarström is (based on true events) the murderer, not Renato; the witch Ulrica is Madame Arvidson, hand-reader; the conspirators aren’t the ridiculous Tom and Sam, but Counts Horn and Ribbing; even the sailor Silvano is Cristiano in the Swedish version; only Amelia and Oscar retain their names.
Alex Ollé is responsible for the transformation of Ballo into a dystopic Orwellian view with Nazi-Fascist heavy sets (Alfons Flores), ugly and drab uniforms with numbers (Lluc Castells), absurd and distracting videos (Emmanuel Carlier) and lighting (Urs Schönebaum) that goes along with the producer’s ideas. Ollé also seems colour blind, for there are grotesque changes in the colours the text mentions, and he doesn’t solve crucial moments (Amelia’s veil isn’t dropped accidentally but in a ridiculous gesture she does apparently on purpose). Masks for everyone, uncomfortable and silly; at the end the conspirators gas to death all the courtiers (who look like bureaucrats dancing robotically); nothing looks Swedish (it was a farce to call it the Swedish version). And a big ETC.
You may remember that I mentioned this production when I wrote about the Sydney Opera in March; it will also go to Oslo and Bruxelles. A flabbergasting thing is that Ollé’s Ballo won the Australian best production award...
On to the good things: splendid conducting by Ira Levin, excellent choral work (Miguel Martínez). Two good (not outstanding) casts. Gustavo: nice début of Albanian tenor Giuseppe Gipali, firm and hitting all the notes, though with little personality; the Argentine Marcelo Puente, quite communicative and vocally adequate. Amelia: Virginia Tola in good form, very dramatic though with too much vibrato; début of Georgian soprano Iano Tamar, with fine floated notes but weak in the low range. Argentina’s Fabián Veloz showed his fine lyric baritone as Anckarström; Douglas Hahn (Brazilian) sounded overparted and un-Verdian.
Oscar for Ollé isn’t a trouser role but a woman! Well sung by the Swedish Sussana Andersson (at least she is Swedish...) though Ollé riddles the part with unforeseen familiarities, and we see a very tipsy Oscar at the Ball; Marisú Pavón was too vulgar and her singing barely coped. Ulrica: Elisabetta Fiorillo was a wrong import (début), the voice broken and vibratoed; Alejandra Malvino sang cleanly though without mystery. Fine conspirators: Lucas Debevec Meyer and Fernando Radó (first cast) and Emiliano Bulacios and Debevec Mayer (second). Good Cristianos (Leonardo Estévez, Fernando Grassi).
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