Thursday, 8 January 2015

Why I love the ROH Un ballo in maschera

"At last" said a man in the audience at Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House, "a production there's nothing to boo about" though, pf course, some sections of the audience like getting incandesant with hate, and would feel cheated if they didn't get that rush of livid adrenaline.  Most of us, however, go to opera because we might learn something about art itself.  At first, I could hardly believe my eyes, seeing 19th century stagecraft and semaphore acting to match. The man sitting beside me fell asleep. I wanted to join him. Then it dawned on me that that was exactly the intention.

Katharina Thoma got slammed for her Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos because it was too demanding. "We British don't like intellectuals,"someone said at the time. So this time, she gave the audience the bog standard they claim to love.  Or did she, really?

This production appeals to those who think opera must be as literal as possible. But  what if art exists to stimulate our minds, and to make us think and feel more deeply about life?  Is art a commodity that can be consumed, like fast food, or does it exist for its own sake? Throughout history, true artists have often been innovators. Now, mass audiences hold sway: people don't want truth but the confirmation that their version of truth cannot be challenged.  So, on the surface, this Un ballo gave a large part of the audience just what they wanted – no ideas, no perspective. Conversely, an even larger part of the audience was numbed into disbelief. Could anything outside the Met be quite that mindless? While seeming to pander to the anti-intellectual wing of the opera world, Thoma makes a good case for opera with ideas.

A good director once told me, always think of characters, how they came to be where they are and why they feel as they do. The libretto and score, in this case, give precious little to go on, though a lot could be made of the relationship between Riccardo and Renato. And why is Oscar a trouser role ? Maybe the old production with revealing yellow skin-tight pants was saying something significant!  Why do supposedly rational people need to consult soothsayers? Many questions. Dramatic interpretation gives clues to answers. But oh, no, we don't like ideas and, above all, not German ideas. So in this Un ballo, we get a supposedly ideas-free experience.

As I watched, I enjoyed seeing the dynamic between Joseph Calleja and Dmitri Hvorostovsky They were singing the right words, but were playing themselves, not their roles. There's a difference. Both are perfectly capable of inhabiting characters but here they were being stage personalities having a good time interacting with each other. Art about the making of art!  So the staging with its archaic painted screens was making a statement: this is drama, not realism.  At least this production had nice colours unlike the last one, which Rupert Christiansen  rightly called "ugly and obtuse". At least we didn't have the horror of blackface extras pretending to be voodoo slaves, which has been done in the past. Whatever the synopsis says, the opera isn't about Boston, even long ago.

Thoma's Un ballo in maschera connects to theatre traditions of the past, not just in the physical sets and park-and-bark acting, but in its references to French grand opera, which still dominated Europe at the time Verdi was writing. The libretto is an adaptation of a score written by Eugene Scribe for Daniel d'Auber only 25 years before.  Hence the Gothic Camp of the midnight scene, which references the taste of the time for crypts, funerary marble and dancing corpses. Thoma didn't invent the soothsayer, who is in the libretto, and looks like a witch in most productions, including the one by Calixto Bieito, where she looks exactly like Rebekah Brooks, though the staging precedes the News International scandal).  Oscar appears in a costume from the "wrong" period, another link to stagings of the past. As I've mentioned, a very odd character indeed.Small photo shows Pavarotti and an Oscar of his time.

There are two more performances to come at the Royal Opera House. This is such refined satire that I wish I could manage to go again. Please read my review of the premiere of the ROH Un ballo in maschera  HERE. "Tales from the Crypt"

Photo of Joseph Calleja, copyright C. Ashmore 2014, courtesy Royal Opera House

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