Met Opera: "Un Ballo in Maschera" Gets A Face Lift, With Strange Results

Un Ballo in Maschera, Verdi's stirring drama of assignation and assassination, returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage last night in a beautifully sung yet puzzling new production that earns plaudits for its fine cast but will probably only add fuel to the debate on the direction modern operatic stagings are taking.

It's a debate that the Met will extend to some quarter of a million opera lovers around the world on Dec. 8 when its new Ballo is shown in 1,900 theaters in 64 countries as part of its Live in HD series this season.

Un Ballo, which contains some of Verdi's most melodic and emotive music, could be described as a docu-opera and subtitled "based on a true story." It concerns the real-life murder of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball in Stockholm in 1792. Knowing Italian opera audiences, however, Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, added a love triangle to further complicate the plot and inject more passion to the score.

Verdi often ran afoul of censors, but never more so than with those in Naples, where the opera was scheduled to be performed, who refused to permit a tale of regicide to appear on a Neapolitan stage. The composer changed the setting from Stockholm to Boston and the tenor role from a Swedish king to a colonial governor, and opened it in Rome. The new Met production restores the setting to Sweden.

In the opera, King Gustavo is secretly in love with Amelia, the wife of his secretary and close friend, Count Anckarstrom. Although there is a plot against his life, the king ignores all warnings and meets Amelia secretly at midnight. When the count learns of their love, he joins the conspiracy to kill Gustavo.

The good news for the new Met production is an excellent cast who bring all the emotion, tenderness, and tension to a score that is both exciting and haunting. Marcelo Alvarez is arduous in the big love duet with Amelia ("O qual soave brivido") and pensive in the final act lamentation ("Ma se m'e forza perderti"). If his opening act aria ("Di tu, se fedele") was a bit slow in tempo, the conductor Fabio Luisi and the always splendid Met orchestra picked it up quickly.

Sondra Radvanovsky's strong, earthy soprano is a perfect fit for Amelia. Her anguished delivery in the final act aria "Morro, ma prima in grazia" is touching. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, always a pleasure to hear, is full of rage as the count, especially in the signature baritone aria "Eri tu." Dolora Zajick, no stranger to playing mad Gypsies, is rousing as the fortune-teller Madame Ulrica, and the coloratura Kathleen Kim is delightful in the trouser role of Oscar, the king's page.

Of more dubious success is the production itself. The questions begin even before the overture. A leather armchair is downstage in front of a scrim on which a representation of Merry-Joseph Blondel's "Fall of Icarus," a ceiling decoration at the Louvre, has been painted. As the first bars begin, Gustavo sits in the chair. The scrim lifts and Oscar enters an empty room, wearing a pair of wings. Gustavo and Oscar then dance around the room to no particular purpose while the overture is played.

Blondel's 19th-century painting is then transposed to the ceiling of the room, which is otherwise unadorned except for some gray patterned wallpaper. The Icarus motif keeps recurring. What the Icarus myth has to do with King Gustavo's assassination, or the love triangle that is the heart of the opera, is anyone's guess.

This opening tableau forms a pattern that the director David Alden repeats throughout. During major arias, duets, and choruses, he has cast members engaged in some sort of extra business. In Zajick's aria, for example, some of the chorus begin to writhe on the floor; during the barcarolle in that same scene, the chorus, dressed in rain slickers and looking as if they stepped out of a tunafish ad, all open umbrellas and sway back and forth; in the opening tenor aria, several clerks grab their gloved right hands, shake them and stare at them. Even in Amelia's touching Act 3 aria, Radvanovsky sings it on her knees, clawing at her husband's leg, then lying down.

It is as though Alden feels the need to always have several things going on onstage at the same time, like a three-ring circus, lest the audience becomes bored just hearing the music or watching the story unfold. As the opera proceeds, however, one becomes inured to all this quirky behavior.

The empty box of a room serves as the set for all the scenes, whether the Swedish palace, the gypsy's den, the site where the king and Amelia meet, the count's house, the king's study, or the royal ballroom. It's a little monotonous. And a steel girder that pops up in one scene only adds to the mystery. From the costumes, which could provide a wardrobe for an Agatha Christie TV mystery, the new staging would appear to be set between the two world wars, the 1920's and 30's.