The “Laughing Aria” is no joke when it comes to the great Verdi opera Un Ballo in Maschera, but on Saturday night at the Metropolitan Opera Marcelo Alvarez singlehandedly ruined an otherwise star studded performance of this classic.
The plot of the opera is right out of basic soap dramas: a king is in love with the wife of his closest advisor. The husband/advisor suspects that his wife has been unfaithful to him and decides to assassinate the king at a masked ball. The king had been warned that he would fall at the hand of a friend by a fortune telling gypsy and by a note from his beloved. However, choosing not to appear to be a coward, he attends the ball and is recognized by the conspirators by a hanging pink ribbon.
One of the most important elements in this drama, is the sense of irony and disbelief that the king has toward the words uttered by the gypsy. To disprove the oracle who had just foretold his death to be by the hand of the next man whose hand he shakes, the king finds his best and most trusted friend and shakes it, knowing that the hand of Renato will never rise up against him. He is to be proven wrong, but the laughing aria that follows the sequence requires laughing. While Alvarez did manage one of his better performances on the Metropolitan Opera stage, his failure to produce an audible laughing sound ruined the musical beauty of the entire opera, as it serves as a reference point for laughing – more bitter and dark – by his conspirators. Without a reference point the meaning of the following laughing sections was missing.
Dmitri Hvorostovky was incredible as the jealous husband, head of the secret police, and the closest advisor to the king. He is a world class baritone and he delivered another wonderful performance. Dolora Zajick was a wonderful gypsy. Her soft delivery of dark and powerful lines filled the grand hall with rich sound and set the mood for the tragedy to come. Kathleen Kim, in the role of the king’s page, showed once again how a human voice can hit all the high notes and keep to the role with outstanding acting. Fabio Luisi did what he always does in the pit and made sure that the orchestra was in top shape. However, the true star of the evening, without a doubt, was Sondra Radvanovsky in the role of Amelia, the wife of Renato and the kings beloved. Sondra consistently made all of the transitions through the score, hitting all the right notes, tones, and shades. Following her solo in the third act where she begged her husband to see their son for the last time as he raised his hand to kill her, the house burst into uncontrollable applause. In scenes with the great Met Opera choir, her voice – almost effortlessly – would rise above all of the voices and bring the emotions of the scene to the fore. However, in her duets with Alvarez, her voice dominated the space and the wonderful and loving duets were lost.
The much acclaimed staging by David Alden and set design by Paul Steinberg were lost on me. The minimalist sets with a chair in a corner – at most – reminded me of emptied gift boxes. Only in the third act in Renato’s room the black and white contrasts set the mood for the stark choice between right and wrong that he is about to make. The ever-present image of the fallen Icarus is confusing at best, as there is no island to escape from, no father to put wings of wax on his son, but the reference to Amelia as the sun could work.
Overall, this production is worth seeing as the member of the audience will get a great collection of vocal and instrumental portions, apart from the lead, to make it a wonderful and fulfilling experience.
Un Ballo in Maschera will be playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with performances ending on December 14. For details, see here.