La Fenice opened its 2017-18 season with an interesting and courageous production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” a production which under the direction of Gianmaria Aliverta aimed at producing a deeper reading of the work, one which sought to uncover the underlying structural political conflicts that led to the assassination of a political leader.
Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, originally set the opera in the court of Sweden’s King Gustav III, but were forced to alter the setting to 18th century Boston, following objections from the State censors who refused to countenance the onstage murder of a King. In its final form therefore, Renato, believing that he has been betrayed by his friend, Riccardo, the State Governor, enters into a conspiracy with other malcontents with personal grievances, and murders him during a masked ball. For Aliverta, such motives are too superficial and fail to explain the widespread state of unrest that pervades Boston, and do not possess, on their own, the necessary dynamic to drive the drama forward.
Turning to Racial Politics
Aliverta, therefore, moves the work to 19th century Boston, to the years just after the end of the American Civil War. We are thus presented with a totally different political environment. The USA has long since gained its independence from Britain. The Confederacy has been defeated and slavery abolished. However, such structural changes within society rarely happen without a consequent reaction, and it is this reaction which precipitates the opposition to the new order, and Riccardo’s assassination. Aliverta’s focus, in particular, is on the reaction of vested interests to the abolition of slavery, and the underlying racism that pervades the city. Throughout the performance, we are presented with intolerance, abuse, and acts of violence against Boston’s black population. During the overture, a black servant is on his knees cleaning the stairs in the State Council Chamber, only to be met with abuse and intimidation by one of its members. In Act two, a lynch mob chases down and murders a black man. Moreover, Aliverta highlights that such hostility lies in the city’s power structures themselves by having the judge in Act one reappear at the end of Act two as the leader of a body of the Ku Klux Klan, a burning cross in the background. Riccardo, who is more enlightened and represents the new politics, thus becomes a target for the reactionary forces. The personal vendettas of Renato and others are thus portrayed only as superficial motivations, if with devastating consequences to Riccardo himself, and only loosely attached to the underlying dynamic.
Leaving aside whether or not Boston is a suitable setting for such a reading of “Un Ballo in Maschera” which had a history of being a center for the abolitionist movement, for having a progressive attitude towards the freeing of slaves from a relatively early date and with little or no Klan activity, Aliverta’s production successfully brings to the fore how power relationships are played out, and how conflicting power interests impact upon people’s lives at all levels of society in a very real and practical way. Nor can Aliverta’s production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” be seen as a case in which the director tramples upon the composer’s intentions. For sure, there are the textural incongruities which will inevitably result from changing the time or the place from the opera’s originally setting, but on the more significant point of adding a racial element to the work, Aliverta is actually building upon Verdi’s inclusion of a racial differences: Ulrica is black and Renato, alongside his co-conspirators, Tom and Samuel, were defined as creole, which certainly opens the possibility of them having a black heritage. Focusing on a racial dimension is, therefore, not simply a directorial conceit. Moreover, Verdi’s sympathies throughout the work clearly lie with Riccardo and his progressive outlook rather than the reactionary forces he opposed. Aliverta thus provided the audience with a broader and deeper interpretation of the work, but never in opposition to the music or to Verdi’s intentions.
Imagination on the Production Side of Things…
Massimo Checchato made a real splash with his imaginative sets, which were not only pleasing to the eye, but also wonderfully functional, allowing the drama to proceed in a unhampered and integrated fashion. His set for the final scene of Act three, the hall for the masked ball, was stunning. Riccardo performs his Romanza “Ma se m’è forza perderti” against a backdrop of the American flag, which is then raised to reveal the head of the Statue of Liberty on the right side of the stage, upon which Riccardo will eventually be murdered. On the left side of the stage is the Torch of Liberty held by the hand of the statue, upon which a sextet plays a mazurka for the ball. The masked dancers fill the space between.
Carlos Tieppo, the costume designer, complemented the sets by having the dancers wearing masks replicating Liberty’s crown. The desolate and frightening Hanging Field in Act two was also cleverly thought through. A sloping rock was positioned in the center of the stage. Fabio Barettin, the lighting designer, bathed the scene in a dark light, creating an eerie and evil atmosphere. A black man suddenly appears, chased by a lynch mob. Later in the scene, as Amelia sings of her fears, the rock rotates with the dead man staring up at her.
Overall, Aliverta and his team produced a visually satisfying and thought-provoking production, which had the audience fully engaged throughout the evening.
…But Not Quite Musically
On the musical side, however, things were slightly uneven, although Myung-Whun Chung’s leading of the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice was first class. Chung highlighted the dynamic and textural contrasts in the score, and delivered an energetic and vibrant reading, that positively sparkled.
Francesco Meli, as Riccardo, put in a very strong performance. His voice, which he was able to project powerfully into the auditorium, although occasionally maybe too powerfully, has a pleasant sounding tone, supported by a secure technique. In the first act, his voice did sound a little constricted in the upper register, but this soon disappeared, his singing positively blooming as the performance progressed. Although he occasionally gave the impression of relying a little too heavily upon his technique at the expense of spontaneity, his singing was expressive throughout the evening. His Act three aria, “Ma se m’è forza perderti,” was delivered with a great deal of feeling and delighted the audience, for which he received sustained applause.
Kristin Lewis did not do herself justice in the role of Amelia. Although she clearly possesses a strong, flexible soprano, strong across the range, with a dark chest register and bright higher register, and the ability to color her voice, she never appeared to completely identify with the character. The result was that she came over as distant, if nevertheless, technically proficient. In Act two, she was unconvincing in portraying Amelia’s changing emotional state with sufficient depth, her characterization lacking the necessary subtlety. Moreover, her voice lacked beauty – which she appeared to sacrificed for the sake of expressivity. In particular, her Act three aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” was technically well delivered, but exemplified the lack of beauty in the voice, as she opted instead to highlight her expressive qualities with overzealous accents and a harsher tone.
The duets and vocal exchanges between Meli and Lewis were certainly impressive with regard to the amount of energy they both brought to the scenes, but lacked the emotional connection, and thus detracted from the overall impression.
The role of Oscar was undertaken by the Italian soprano Serena Gamberoni, and she delivered what can only be described as a near-perfect performance. She was an Oscar with attitude, not willing to be intimidated by anyone and prepared to say what she thinks. Gamberoni possesses a light, bright, and silvery soprano which positively sparkled as she danced here way through the part, with the ability to project her voice with strength and clarity. Moreover, she displayed considerable acting skills, which she used to produce an engaging reading of the role.
Although only present on stage for a single scene, Silvia Beltrami in the role of Ulrica put in a formidable and convincing performance and made a lasting impression. She has a wonderfully dark sultry timbre, which she used intelligently to characterize the sorceress. Her aria, “Zitti… l’incanto non dèssi turbare,” showed off her voice to good effect, the dark vocal colors darkening further, then brightening and soaring upwards as she invokes the Devil. Blacked-up with bright red lipstick, and dressed in a white dress with a red turban and red gloves, she really looked the part. Her superb acting ability enabled her to dominate the stage.
Vladimir Stoyanov put in an excellent performance as Renato. He was solid throughout the evening, bringing a maturity and depth of understanding to the part. His voice is balanced and rounded with a shining timbre. His Act three aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima,” in which Renato focuses his hatred on Riccardo, was delivered with intensity and expressivity that left no one in doubt about the sincerity of his feelings. It was a polished performance from an experienced singer.
Simon Lim, who performs regularly at La Fenice, yet again showed what a fine singer he is, this time in the role of Samuel. He possesses a dark resonant bass, measured and powerful, which he employed to wonderful effect. His co-conspirator, Tom, played by Mattia Denti also performed his role convincingly. William Corrò, also a regular performer in his native city of Venice, put in a solid performance in the minor role of Silvano, the Sailor.
The chorus of La Fenice, under the direction of Claudio Marino Moretti, performed to its usual high standards, and was well choreographed, especially during the crowded masked ball scene, by Barbara Pessina, who discharged her role with credit.
It needs to be repeated that this was a courageous production, for by focusing on race as the work’s underlying dynamic, Aliverta entered a field littered with many mines, in which one misplaced step could lead to serious consequences. Over the past few months, there have been a couple of instances in which a firestorm broke over instances relating to race. Consider the brouhaha over Jonas Kaufmann’s blacking-up as Otello, or Music Theatre Wales’ production of ‘The Golden Dragon’ set in a Chinese restaurant, yet without a single Chinese person in the cast, which resulted in the cancellation of a performance at the London Hackney Empire. Neither incident is likely to have been a deliberate act aiming to offend people, but they did offend some people. However, La Fenice’s production managed to steer a safe course through this minefield. This was an honest production in which it was clear that artistic values were paramount. They employed a multi-racial cast, yet not necessarily in parts according to their race: for example, the South Korean Simon Lim played the part of the creole Samuel. Lewis, a black American, played the part of Amelia, and Stoyanov, a white Bulgarian played the part of the mixed-race Renato. Certainly, Beltrami was blacked-up to play the part of the sorceress, Ulrica, but this was for purely dramatic effect, her voice being beautifully suited to the role. This was a colorblind production with race as a predominant theme.
It would be interesting to know what an American audience would make of this reading of “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Whereas a European audience can engage intellectually with the themes explored by Aliverta, an American would be able to engage on an emotional level, formed by their present and historical connections to the subject.