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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

THE CLASSICAL TRAVELER | A Fresh Take on Verdi at Austin Opera

By Paul E. Robinson on November 19, 2014

Photo: Marty Sohl
Photo: Marty Sohl

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

Mardi Byers(Amelia);Dominik Chenes(Riccardo);Michael Chioldi(Renato);Sara Ann Mitchell (Oscar)
Austin Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Richard Buckley
Stage Director: Leon Major
Projection Designer: Wendall J. Harrington
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
November 13, 2014

“This opera setting was not the wisest of choices for Verdi,” stage director Leon Major rightly points out in his program note for this production.

Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma had used the real-life assassination of Swedish King Gustav III – an assassination that had taken place only 65 years earlier – as the scenario for their opera. It was recent history for Italian audiences. Even more recently, there had been numerous political murders in Europe. To “stage” an assassination in the face of such recent activity was inviting trouble. “No way, Mr. Verdi,” ruled the authorities!

As a result of this (likely) wise censorship, Verdi changed the setting of the opera to Boston in the 1690s. For audiences today, it really doesn’t much matter where the opera is set. A story of political intrigue entwined with a love story, it could happen anywhere. With this perspective in mind, Major decided to set the opera in present time; the characters wear contemporary dress, use cell phones and carry guns. Projections, in lieu of sets, show us a city much like Austin, Texas.

Does it work? Indeed it does. We really don’t need elaborate staircases and mid-nineteenth century costumes to tell the story or bring out the beauty and power of the music.

Major went even further. He not only changed the time and place of the opera, but also told the story in a more stylized fashion than we’re used to seeing. This was restrained, rather than “Grand Opera” acting. The lead characters rarely emoted wildly with extravagant gestures. Their feelings were often internalized or expressed through the music. Verdi was a master of conveying emotion through music. The singers don’t need to draw pictures of what they are feeling; it is already in the music.

Major’s thespian minimalism also extended to the chorus. Directors of large groups often go out of their way to encourage each singer or actor to be different. ‘Come up with a costume quirk, a facial expression or a bit of business to make yourself an individual,’ they say. The goal is to achieve greater naturalism. Real people in crowds don’t all look or behave the same; on stage they shouldn’t either.

But Major’s crowds consisted of people who wear the same clothes and move the same way. Does that make them ‘unreal?’ Not necessarily. In fact, Major is making a statement about crowd behavior. Individuals in groups don’t always look the same, but they tend to behave in the same way – especially when they have been brainwashed by forces such as government propaganda, political parties, media and advertising. Major’s crowds in Un ballo in maschera are followers. They speak (sing) the same words, and in one telling scene, they all point together.

The robotic groups in Un ballo in maschera have no effect whatsoever on the action of the drama. The intrigue goes on as if they weren’t even there. Just as in real life.

I have had a lot to say about Leon Major’s staging of Un ballo in maschera because it was new and fresh, and thought-provoking. Ultimately, however, this is Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. This is a story told through music – some very great music. Verdi wrote a lot of derivative and forgettable music in his early years but by the time he got to Un ballo in maschera in 1859, his genius was clearly taking shape. The opening bars of the Prelude with divided violas and celli, blended with clarinets and bassoons is a wonderful inspiration and the score abounds with such touches. Think of the laughter from the conspirators in Act II when they discover Renato in a tryst with his own wife. Verdi renders the laughter in music that is as effective as it is unexpected.

Fortunately, the musical side of the production was in the capable hands of conductor Richard Buckley, by whom I never cease to be amazed. He is equally at home in all styles of music and routinely works wonders with both singers and orchestra.

I have never heard the music accompanying the drawing of lots in Act III Scene 1, rendered with such power and intensity, and Riccardo’s death scene was simply electrifying. On the technical side, Buckley expertly saved the day when Dominick Chenes as Riccardo botched an entry earlier in the opera. The Austin Opera Orchestra contributed first-class playing under Buckley’s direction. One of the high points was Douglas Harvey’s cello solo in Amelia’s aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” in Act III Scene 1.

Photo: Marty Sohl
Photo: Marty Sohl

The cast was solid but vocal honours were clearly taken by Michael Chioldi as Renato. Chioldi came late to the production, taking over for a cast member who fell by the wayside, but provided charisma and sheer vocal power that thrilled the audience. His rendering of “Eri tu” in Act III Scene 1 was splendid.

As Amelia, Mardi Byers exhibited warmth and control, but in her love scene with Riccardo in Act Two, she lacked the passion this music requires. She clearly got the message that Leon Major discouraged superfluous gestures, but Amelia’s fire and angst must match the music in this scene and that did not happen.

Tenor Domenick Chenes hit most of the right notes but lacked the ringing authority both the role and the music requires. Whatever Riccardo is – King, Duke, Governor, President, or CEO – he must clearly stand out as a leader. He didn’t get his position by accident. He is obviously a man with serious human weaknesses, but he is also a man who gets what he wants and who has the ability to make men (and women) want to follow him. Mr. Chenes didn’t convince me he was such a man.

Coloratura soprano Sara Ann Mitchell (as Oscar) demonstrated impressive technical gifts in her arias and her voice soared beautifully in the ensembles. In the original opera he/she (Verdi conceived Oscar as a male character but a female singer) is listed as “A Page.” In the present version, we are probably meant to see her as Riccardo’s closest advisor.

It should be noted that this was a collaborative effort between Austin Opera (until earlier this year known as Austin Lyric Opera) and the University of Texas at Austin Department of Theater and Dance. At the suggestion of Austin Opera artistic director Richard Buckley, the two organizations came together to create a production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Wendall K. Harrington, a guest faculty member at UT, together with her students, designed the projected scenery sets for this production. Let’s hope this excellent partnership continues.

Paul E. Robinson

 

Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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