Teatro Real de Madrid 2020-21 Review: Un Ballo in Maschera, Cast A

Michael Fabiano, Anna Pirrozzi Lead One of the Best Casts Ever Seen in Madrid

By Mauricio Villa

The Teatro Real opened the 2020-21 season with Verdi’s masterpiece, “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

Only the second opera performed at the theatre since the global lockdown due to the pandemic, it marks a hopeful beginning for the company’s season. As the regulations have changed, the production—complete with full sets and dancers—had to be adjusted.  Dancers wore protective masks because they couldn’t keep the minimum distance, but singers interacted with each other, a cautious step forward towards normalcy on the operatic stage.

As is customary for every opera season-opening, the king and queen of Spain attended the performance and met the cast afterward.

A Musical Event

This production of “Ballo” was quite the musical event, as three great internationally-acclaimed artists made roles debuts—Michael Fabiano, Artur Rucinsky, and Daniela Barcellona as Riccardo, Renato, and Ulrica, respectively. Enhanced further by the talent of the electric Italian dramatic soprano, Anna Pirozzi, and the amazing interpretation of Elena Sancho as Oscar, this production united one of the greatest casts ever seen at the Spanish coliseum.

American tenor Michael Fabiano filled the whole theater with his rich voice from the moment he appeared on stage and sang his first line “Amici miei.” The confidence and determination of the lead character, Riccardo, came through Fabiano’s performance and he illustrated his clear affinity for the role. Sharp, clean, and resonant, Fabiano has one of the best voices of his generation. Thanks to an impeccable singing technique, his phrasing is exceptional, his Italian diction clear, and his ability for mezza voce and pianissimo mesmerizing.

Riccardo, the scene-stealing protagonist of “Un Ballo in Maschera,” is a difficult role that features four arias, two duets, two trios, and even a final death scene. Throughout the entire performance, Fabiano was deeply involved in the character and the drama, singing the vast score and finishing with an unbelievably moving death scene with no signs of vocal fatigue.

He sang his first aria “La rivedra” with ease, his voice was clear over the chorus and orchestra and he crowned the aria with the first ringing A sharp of the night. His voice became light and flexible for “Ogni cura si doni al diletto,” and his interpretation  was amusing and teasing. The second scene of Act One presents nonstop singing for the tenor. It is incredible how Fabiano can lighten his voice and increase his pace, a skill he showed with grace in “Di tu sei Fedele,” where he perfectly articulated every word despite the speed of the piece. His performance of “E Scherzo od e follia” was tremendously amusing, and once more Fabiano’s voice came in clear and strong within the final ensemble of the act.

In Act Two, Riccardo sings what is considered one of the best opera love duets ever written. The tessitura becomes really high for the tenor with constant ascensions to A naturals and B flats and ends with an optional high C; Fabiano rose to the challenge. He showed his lyricism, good taste, and the use of long legato phrases in “Quante volte dal cielo,” sung in immaculate Bel-canto style. The duet received the first big ovation of the night. After a short trio, again demanding a high tessitura with more high As and B flats, Fabiano earned 40 minutes of rest before diving into the non-stop end of the opera.

The second scene of Act Three opens with Riccardo’s aria “Forse la soglie…Ma se me forza,” which Fabiano sang with tremendous emotional depth and incredible use of mezza voce. This was on display in his delivery of the line “come se fosse l’ultima ora del nostro amor.” Later he delivered another strong B flat while singing on his knees and finishing the aria with a soaring pianissimo high note.

After such a lyrical moment, Fabiano went back to his vibrant and heroic singing for the B flat of “anco una volta l’anima.” The highlight of Fabiano’s performance was “Ah! perch qui”—the duet with the soprano—and his subsequent death scene. Here Fabiano used dynamics and mezza voce to the extreme, delivering an exquisite pianissimo even on his last lines “per sempre addio,” where the note floated suspended in deadly whispering. Fabiano performed one of the most intense death scenes I have ever witnessed; he moaned, cried and trembled, utterly committed to the character and the heart-wrenching scene.



Dramatic Forces

Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi possesses a rich, velvety voice, with a low register, a marked vibrato, ringing, and easy high notes, and a floating whispering pianissimo that reminds one of the great Monserrat Caballé.

Pirozzi’s interpretation of Amelia proved a showcase of true legato singing, strong low and high notes and exquisite pianissimo throughout her entire register, evident from one of her first lines, “consenti mio signore,” which was sung in a floating legato pianissimo ascending to a high A natural, and a breath-taking high C flat in her second aria “morró, ma prima grazia,” sung with a “fil di voce.”

As sorrowful as this aria was, Pirozzi’s dramatic gifts came to the fore in her first Act Two aria, “Ecco l’orrido campo,” which she complemented with powerful low chest Ds , Cs, and an A natural, without compromising her upper register.

Polish baritone Artur Rucinski once again won over the audience of Teatro Real–he has enjoyed multiple successes in recent productions of “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata”–and received the greatest ovation of the night following his Act Three aria “Alzati…Eri tu.” With his long single fiato lines, his dark projected sound, his easy high notes, and his moving interpretation of the character, his performance was the highlight. He managed to sing the five bars line “O dolcezze perdute! O memorie d’un amplesso che l’essere india!” in a single breath, creating the magical sensation of fluidity and endlessness.

In addition to his voice, his characterization was so powerful that it was difficult to believe that he was singing the role for the first time. The dramatic arc of Renato’s character –from the loyal friend to the cheated husband to ultimately become Riccardo’s murderer– was performed with believability and intensity. It was especially noticeable in Act Three where Renato goes from sadness to anger, vengeance, regret, and finally despair. Rucinski commanded the stage portraying this tortured soul, so full of doubts and overwhelming emotions, captivating all in attendance. This baritone combined his singing with his acting to create a truly believable and moving performance.

Daniela Barcellona performed the short but intense role of Ulrica. It is a contralto role with a very low tessitura which made the great flexibility of Barcellona’s voice plainly evident.

She displayed all the darkness and mystery of Ulrica with a robust chest voice and low notes, and maintained this throughout her 40-minute performance; the sustained low G on the word “Silenzio” was impressive. But the few high A flats were not impaired by her heavy use of the lower register, as her notes were clear, continued, and resonant. She wonderfully portrayed Ulrica’s character of the “psychic witch;” an impressive feat, considering she wore a wig that hid her facial expressions and she had to rely on her stagecraft and body language alone.

Spanish soprano Elena Sancho Pereg sang the role of Oscar — often considered an unrewarding role, due to a lack of dramatic consistency that can see it hidden behind the amorous triangle of Riccardo, Amelia, and Renato, while still being a long role that includes three arias and several ensembles full of coloratura and high notes–with joy and easiness. She has a clear and sweet leggera voice with a depurated coloratura technique that enabled her to sing the arias effortlessly and beautifully. Her high C on a whispering diminuendo from forte to pianissimo was breath-taking during “E scherzo od é follia.”

Italian bass Daniel Giulianini distinguished himself in the role of Samuel with his sonorous bass profondo voice.

Nicola Luisotti, the associated conductor at Teatro Real, has become a regular Verdi conductor. He gave a determined and passionate reading of the score, with reserved tempi yet deep care of dynamics which created powerful emotional environments throughout the opera. His care was acutely felt during the appearance of the conspirator theme during the short overture, throughout Ulrica’s scene, during the prelude to the first Amelia aria, and the heavenly theme played on the harp during Riccardo’s show-stopping death. The orchestra and chorus responded to the conductor with its usual professionalism and high standards.

Inconsistent Ideas Throughout

The production, directed by Gianmaria Aliverta and with choreography by Silvia Giordano, was full of good ideas and intentions but did not really work.

Due to the inevitable health restrictions affecting all opera, the stage direction of the singers was unavoidably impacted; they could not sing facing each other, and members of the choir had been kept at a minimum of a meter apart. With this in mind, Aliverta did a wonderful job. These restrictions were scarcely noticeable, and he managed to preserve the dramatic plot of the opera.

The main problem lies in the conception. Aliverta centered the action in Boston during the notorious “Tea Party” of the mid-18th century and accentuated Americana throughout the performance. The American flag – the world-renowned “Stars and Stripes” – was depicted in nearly every scene. The infamous white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, as well as Santeria and Vodoo rituals, were visually evoked during Ulrica’s scene.  The Statue of Liberty, that famous monument to hope, was displayed in the final scene. Aliverta displays a serious and mindful approach to racism in America, yet the final result is that too many things are shown or alluded to without getting deeper into the content of any of them. The anachronisms were distracting; the Statue of Liberty, though a beautiful symbol, did not exist during the period in which this production is set; the conspirators who go to kill Riccardo in Act Two are dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, yet the target of the historical Klan’s hatred was Black Americans and not a white American Governor, as Riccardo is depicted. Both images were evocative and thought-provoking, but their presence within the larger plot resulted in confusion.

Aliverta tended to overuse the theatrical effects. When used wisely this can be effective, but their use ended up being tedious: the trapdoor in Ulrica’s scene was used to surprise several characters until it stopped being surprising; the rock foundation in Act Two rotated several times yet there was no narrative reason to repeatedly show the multiple angles of this beautiful set. Problems with excess could be seen again during the ballet: although Giordano’s choreography is very musical and dramatic there is an overuse of the dancers. Rather than elevating the scene, they became annoying, dancing distractingly during Silvano’s entrance and Oscar’s aria “Ah! Di che fulgor”. The distraction of the dancers came to a head during the duet of Riccardo and Amelia in Act Three. They sang from atop the head of the Statue of Liberty, which was positioned at the very back of the stage, while twelve brilliantly illuminated dancers danced dramatically at the front edge of the stage. The result was that the dancers drew all the focus and attention from the sorrowful farewell duet that tenor and soprano were singing, and the drama was rendered flat.

The sets design by Massimo Chechetto are undeniably beautifully built, yet they are all enclosed in black curtains when not in use. This makes them seem like empty elements in a black space visually, and from a technical perspective, they must be very difficult to move, as the pauses between scenes with the curtain down were extremely long. Though it was all to ensure that the beautiful sets were moved into place for when the curtain went up, and the machinery of the theatre was put to good use several times during the opera, these all-too-frequent hiatuses stilted the action and made the pacing of an opera which only had one official interval–due to the health restrictions–slow.

Ultimately, a stellar cast of incredible singers, guided by the expert baton of Nicola Luisotti, made for a memorable performance of a wonderful opera.


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