The grandest thing about the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" is Luciano Pavarotti. In fact, his Count Riccardo is the onlym really good thing in a production that should go down in Met history as one of the very ugliest. Director Elijah Moshinsky has taken the action back to Boston -- as it appeared in the official libretto for the opera. Verdi was telling his version of the story of King Gustavus III of Sweden, but his censors felt the assassination of royalty to be too volatile a topic.
One might laud the idea of going back to Boston, though it might seem more logical to put it all back where Verdi first wanted it. The uneasy mix of royalty and pre-Revolutionary Boston -- fancified nobles vs. austere Puritans -- never really works, and Moshinsky has only confused the issue quite deeply.
But when Pavarotti is on stage, one is almost able to forget what is being done to poor Verdi. As a role, Riccardo brings the best out of tenors, yet Pavarotti finds more than most. Rarely has the voice sounded fuller, more vibrant, more suffused with passion and specific meaning. His third- act aria was uncannily well projected, Riccardo's death truly poignant.
But what the star and his cast have to fight! Peter Wexler's idea of Colonial Boston is a huge box of wooden walls that remains for the entire opera -- Colonial Boston sitting inside a huge sauna bath. Here we see a grotesquely huge chandelier, there a banquet-sized writing table, all on a stage that is so steeply raked singers should be issued parachutes to navigate the descent from backstage to front.
Moshinsky has gotten many things quite wrong.The devil- worshipping Ulrica is supposed to be a Creole sorceress -- here she is head of a very polite Shaker sect, or perhaps a Salem-like witch, with nothing remotely seedy about the woman or her entourage, and that kills the major tensions of the scene. After all, is it shocking for a Governor and a very elegant lady to be seen at a polite religious ceremony?
The scene under the scaffolding looks more like one played under the balcony of a seaside resort motel, because of an unnecessary but huge catwalk spreading across the stage halfway up the proscenium. Renato's study, the only set with a shred of warmth, boasts a seven-times-life-sized familym portrait rather than the one of the Count very specifically indicated in the libretto. Riccardo sings his intimate aria in that huge, severely cold box. Oscar, his page, then orders some men to remove the banquet-sized writing table, drop a few of those ugly chandeliers, roll down a rug, and suddenly we are in the ball, with nothing resembling the breathtaking transformation Verdi demands in his music!
Moshinsky does little to sort out the culminating masked ball. The Met chorus just stumbles around in its impressive but colorless Peter J. Hall costumes. Not only does dramatic tension fail utterly, but musical accuracy is tossed to the wings. I have never heard the choral work so anemic and sloppy in a new production, and the fault cannot be blamed entirely on conductor Giuseppe Patane.
Also surprising from an assumedly qualified stage director (he has done some 12 operas here and in Britain to date) that he would allow stupid details to go unchecked. Riccardo is supposed to be hidden when he overhears the conversation betweeen Amelia and Ulrica in Act 1, Scene 2. Yet there he is, standing in the middle of the room. When Renato surprises Riccardo with Amelia in Act 2, she immediately covers her face with a veil. Yet, under this klieg light-bright midnight moon, Miss Ricciarelli merely covered her gorgeous blond wig and her neck.
A frigid cloud hung over this evening. Pavarotti succeeded in penetrating the arctic freeze of sets and direction. But soprano Katia Ricciarelli never got her glamorous Amelia over the orchestra pit. Her lyric soprano has lost some of its sheer velvet, which is replaced by a rather forced, but potent top, a middle voice that can be used to good effect, and a lower register that remains quite inaudible most of the time -- not good for a role that spends so much time in that register. Miss Ricciarelli's stunning good looks, spectacularly flattering costumes, and vibrant stage presence could not compensate; one hopes she did herself no vocal damage delving into such dramatic music.
Louis Quilico was a solid Renato. Bianca Berini made little effect of Ulrica -- a role that has to be sold to the very last row of the house if it is to fit into this opera at all. And poor Judith Blegen could barely be heard once the orchestra got louder than ppp. Even Patane disappointed, for he did not get things moving until the third act, letting scene after scene slip uneventfully.
Fundamentally, however, it seems that Moshinsky has a sense of the various surface details of this story without the remotest sense of the underlying tensions, the inner balances, and the demands of the locale. If Boston must be the setting, even in this visual catastrophe, he could have sorted out the various levels of Colonial society rather than lumping them together indiscriminately. Verdi's superb opera deserves so much better.