Dancing with Revenge: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera Returns to the Met

BY and


A scene from Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” with Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia,
Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Anckarström.
Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

Conducted by Fabio Luisi, “Un Ballo in Maschera” opened Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Álvarez.  This new production, directed by David Alden, who is well known for post-modern and unconventional sets, is one of seven Verdi operas to be produced by the Met as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

“Verdi is a master dramatist with respect to setting text to music,” said soprano Elizabeth Futral.  “He knows how to advance a plot through [sung speech] and arias.  [He] uses great melodies, driving rhythm and brilliant harmonies to do so.”  Verdi, who lived to be 88, was the only major composer  in Italy at a time when the country was struggling for independence against foreign powers.  He used his political sensibility and compositional acumen to try to bring a new relevance and depth to opera, and exploded musical conventions by expanding the formula-driven music common in the 19th century, placing more emphasis on dramatic expression than on vocal virtuosity.  Verdi liked to write about contemporary subjects, which frequently got him into trouble with authorities.  Because “Un Ballo in Maschera” was originally about the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, at a masked ball, and because the King of Naples had been attacked one year before the opera’s 1857 premiere, Italian censors forced Verdi to change the setting to colonial Boston, and the main character from a King to a royal governor.

“I like that Verdi’s music is autobiographical,” said audience member Foster Conklin, who attended the production with his wife.  “The connection between men and women in his work, the infidelity – that really happened to him.”

Mezzo-soprano Brianna Hunter said, “I feel like Verdi picked a lot of great stories and characters to base his operas on.  They really matched the intensity of the art form… and Verdi composes music to match.”

This production marked Alden’s New York City directorial debut. An American expatriate currently residing in London, Alden and his twin brother, Christopher, are known for unconventional opera stagings, in an attempt to get to the heart of what a given piece is really about.  This production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” was inspired by the film noir aesthetic, and attempted to draw parallels between the story and the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, who died because he flew too close to the sun on wings of wax.

“It’s daring in that it is so concept-oriented,” said audience member Harry Phippen, who was wearing a tie with the names of famous opera composers on it.  While Phippen wasn’t sure if he liked the production, he did find the choice of a drop curtain showing a picture of Icarus appropriate to the story.

For Yakov Kalighsky, a Brooklyn resident who is originally from Moscow, the set made the opera feel unconventional and too modern.  He preferred the more traditional productions he had seen before.  “I like old-fashioned opera,” he said.

Toni Levi, a frequent opera patron who attended with her friend, had harsh words for the director’s concept. “I think the first half was very fussy,” she said. “Ideas were just thrown in [and] it distracts from the music.”

The production received a mixed reaction, with vociferous applause combined with booing.   In his review for The New York Times, Anthony Tomassini described the Broadway style dance routine that ended the first scene as “a little too cute.”

Alden defended his choices. “I think Verdi is asking for a theatrical style which encompasses lots of different kinds of moods, and can turn on a dime,” he said, “from lighthearted, loopy operetta to dangerous melodrama.”