Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Met's Ballo: A Discovery

Mr. and Mrs. Buce caught the Met HD performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera yesterday and I must say it came across as a better opera than I had realize, or remembered.  I'm pretty sure I have seen it before, at least on disc, but as must be evident, it didn't make a dent on me. 

I herewith revise my opinion.  Grant that this isn't top-of-the-line Verdi.  But accept also that with Verdi (as with, e.g Shakespeare) even second rate is likely to be better than first-rate anybody else.  And recognize also that under conditions like these, the problem for the second-tier may not be its inferiority but just the fact that may get lost in the shuffle.  If Ballo is "mediocre"--in the strict sense of "middling,"--it's "mediocre only in that it stands below, Falstaff or Otello or--well, you get the idea.

Another problem:  shaky provenance.   If you know only one thing about Ballo,  you know know that this is the one that met with censorial disapproval because it feature(d) the assassination of a King in Sweden and the authorities thought that hit a bit too close to home.  Whereupon Verdi responded, "va bene, Boston," and whisked them all off to a locale where he had never set foot and about which he knew nothing.  The modern observer is likely to suspect that if Verdi didn't take his own intentions more seriously than that, then there was no reason for us to do so either.

This was probably never a fair inference, but whatever; at any rate, in recent years, Ballo has moved back to Sweden and the American stuff is history. Seen in its  native habitat, there's nothing particularly weird about it: just a good, straightforward Verdi plot, with an insolent  authority figure, a troubled friendship and a ong, slow, loud, death scene.   I suppose this might be a problem: Mrs. B says it all reminds her too much of her favorite Rigoletto, from just half a dozen years before. I can see her point, but I think there is a difference here: I think you see Verdi really trying hard not to repeat himself; to stretch out, to explore some different musical forms,  In his exhaustive appraisal of the operas of Verdi, Julian Budder quotes a 19th-Century review, saying that Verdi here "having rejected convention and formula, having assigned to each character his own particular language and having rendered the dramatic situation with evident effectiveness, in fact [has] moulded the drama."  This strikes me as good enough for government work.

One could add the fact that it's a marvelously singable piece of work, and that the Met fitted it out with a world of talent.  For my money, Stephanie Blythe might be the most accomplished singer now working and my only complaint is that in her role as the fortune teller, she gets to go home so early (I'm intrigued to note that the cast for Verdi's original "Boston" version specifies that she be "of the negroid race," or so it is translated in Budder).  I'll even give grudging points to  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the aggrieved and betrayed best friend.  But I do have to wonder--how did a tough kid from Siberia get such impeccable teeth?

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