Saturday 31 January 2015

Un Ballo in Maschera - review of reviews

sDmitri Hvorostovsky The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014
Dmitri Hvorostovsky The Royal Opera © ROH.
Photograph by Catherine Ashmore, 2014
The Royal Opera's new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera debuted in December 2014. It seems to have divided critics. Directed by Katharina Thoma and designed by Sondra Gilmour, it starred Joseph Calleja, Liudmyla Monastyrka, Marianne Cornetti, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Serena Gamberoni.

I caught it on December 22 (see my review) and the production failed to find favour. Of the other critics that I have read, Classical Iconoclast blog liked the production and most others found it leaden and unconvincing. The musical performance seems to have equally divided opinion. I thought it would be interesting to look over all the reviews and I have summarised that various views.

Classical Iconoclast liked the production, feeling that it was easy to regard it as undemanding, and with its use of painted flats, it felt quaint but underneath there was wit and intelligence being applied. That we have opera as the art of illusion, in a production which also placed the focus on the singing. Joseph Calleja and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, both of them highly charismatic, created Riccardo and Renato as convincing characters, and a powerful dynamic between themselves as artists. Ultimately Classical Iconoclast found the production a lot more subversive and thoughtful than met the eye, and wondered if satire was over the heads of the audience.

Hugo Shirley on his blog, had been reading the reviews of the production when it was unveiled in Dortmund where the review in Der Western complained that having to deal with Covent Garden and use big stars had meant the production was 'backward and ridiculous'. Shirley noted that the first night at Covent Garden wasn't booed at the curtain calls, unlike a number of other recent Covent Garden productions. But he felt it was a fusty, half-hearted compromise marred by stagecraft more inept than anything seen on the Covent Garden stage for a long time. He felt the updating had little to do with the work, and that the ending with Oscar receiving an army coat and going off to the trenches was in poor taste.
In the Daily Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen talked about how directors have found it difficult to make something plausible out of the creaking melodrama of the opera. He called it a leaden attempt, clunkily directed, drably designed. The result, mere window dressing, did nothing to clarify motivation or illuminate personality. But for Rupert Christiansen it was the inept acting of the three principals. His last sentence says it all 'the stench of mediocrity was inescapable, as Verdi’s masterpiece emerged dead boring.'

In The Guardian, for Andrew Clements too, the evening was depressing. He says that very little on the stage suggested that the singers had been given the direction they badly needed and he refers to risible acting and clumsy blocking of the chorus. Nothing on stage, explained to Andrew Clements, Thoma's decision to update the action. He felt there was nothing subtle about the musical performance. In The Observer Fiona Maddocks the production felt underwhelming. She appreciated Calleja's effortless virtuosity and winning presence, and Liudmyla Monastyrska conveying the pity and ardour of Amelia. But Daniel Oren's conducting failed to make the music gel.

In the Evening Standard, Barry Millington talked about how the entire opera, music as well as text, is poised between tragedy and comedy but that Thoma's production, though aware of this, laboured unproductively to turn it to advantage. Barry Millington did think that Thoma's UK debut Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne crackled with ideas, but that Un ballo in maschera 'popped and phutted its laborious way with not-so-funny black humour'.

In The Independent Michael Church talked of cardboard Gothic sets, and woefully hammy acting.

But David Nice at The ArtsDesk talked of shining moments and star voices. He felt that the production showed that Thoma did not know how to handle large forces, but that conductor Daniel Oren was equally culpable. He was impressed with Marianne Cornetti, and liked Liudmyla Monastyrska but felt she was more dramatic than lyric, and her Amelia was a size too big. He recommended going to see the production for the set pieces at least. 
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