Sunday, December 1, 2013

Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met

Wow, it’s gonna be almost a year since I started blogging again! And with that thought in mind I would like to write about an opera I saw just before I started this blog. The Met’s Live in HD transmission of Un Ballo in Maschera. Now, this was over a year ago, to be more precise it was on December 8. I remember I went to São Paulo just to see this opera because the Live in HD was about one of the only real links I had with the Met. At the time I didn’t notice but this was the first time I saw two singers who are today two of my all time favorite singers, Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. 

But why am I talking about something I saw over a year ago? Well, a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch the very last day of an irresistible deal made by the Met Opera. Their Met Opera on Demand yearly subscription for only $99 as opposed to the original price, $149. I got the credit out and bought it and don’t regret not even a bit because what I got was so rewarding! Loads and loads of entire operas from the HD broadcasts with incredible sound and image quality and subtitles in all the main languages, all that for me to watch as many times as I wanted! Plus other tv broadcast videos and a bunch of audio streams! 

And guess what I watched again in this ridiculously amazing quality? Un Ballo in Maschera! So I wanted to leave here my thoughts on the production and the singers and all that thing I always do. I actually took 2 weeks to write this entire post and it is 9 pages long, I get too overly excited talking about my favorite singers. 

First of all, Deb Voigt is THE best HD presenter! She’s so witty and fun! I remember a year ago being so glad she was presenting this! Well on to the opera, over this past year I’ve grown to acquiring quite a great taste for Verdi opera which I did not posses when I first saw this. So the music instantly drew me and I was in heaven. I’ve heard many people criticizing this stagingfor this new production of Ballo for the Met. But I found it was clean and classy and it didn’t stay in the way of telling the story and most importantly it didn’t upstage the performers. Although it’s pretty difficult to upstage Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Stephanie Blythe. I particularly liked the enormous painting of Icarus falling from the skies and the whole staging for me was the perfect vessel to bring forward the story.

We start the opera with king Gustavo hearing a chorus of sometimes tender words and words of revenge which are perfectly put together by the brilliance of Verdi. I think Marcelo Alvarez does a spectacular job with this Verdi repertoire, I feel like his voice is just right for these roles and he’s got so much charisma. Gustavo is that kind of Tito king, the good guy through and through. I like the way Marcelo portrays him, very light hearted but also with a twinge of ‘I’m kind of tired of doing this, just let them have what they want’ which is, I think, the essence of the character.

Something that did not strike any powerful meaning to me was the lady playing Oscar. I think that was partially to the fact that, as she says in the interview, she’s playing him in an androgynous kind of way so you really don’t know if it’s a guy or girl. I think that’s a very risky thing to do when you play pants roles, especially if you are half the size of the tenor and a coloratura soprano. And the fact that she was holding a cigarette most of the time kind of bugged me. To be completely sincere I don’t usually warm up to light/coloratura sopranos (Diana Damrau and Joan Sutherland being a total exception to that rule, they got spice!), I’m not really fond of that type of voice actually, so that’s also why I didn’t like Oscar.

Ah well, that’s about the only thing I did not like in this opera. Now after being super nice to everybody Gustavo sends his peeps away and his right hand arrives. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is such a great singer and as well as an actor, he’s got that placid Verdi baritone thing all worked out. Even in roles like DeLuna in private moments he’s able to maintain a steadiness and control that are absolutely admirable, especially because with roles like that it’s easy to go too crazy and overdo it. 

In this scene Gustavo is daydreaming about Amelia, the woman she loves, when Renato, his bestie and Amelia’s husband, arrives. Renato tries to reason with the king, telling him that there are people who wish to see him dead and he should take action for his own safety, but he won’t listen. Then Renato sings an aria I enjoy thoroughly “Alla vita che t’arride”, I like this aria because it shows that Renato is not a bad guy, he’s actually a very good person who always thinks of the well being of others before his own.

After a great ovation for Dmitri the plot moves on to reveal the government wants to exile a gypsy, Ulrica, who can see the future. Gustavo is quite excited about an idea of someone who can see the future and does not want to punish the woman. He actually wants to see it for himself so he makes it his business to go there himself to judge the woman. Even though Renato tells him not to go because it’s dangerous the king is resolute and decides to disguise himself as a fisherman.

This scene builds up to a great stravaganza! I loved this music, Gustavo is singing enthusiastically, Renato is singing mournfully and Oscar’s melody is like a skipping delight! Then the chorus comes in and before you know it everybody has a hat and cane and they are dancing as if they are in a Broadway musical and seriously, I LOVED THAT! It’s a real fun scene to watch!

Then the scene and the music COMPLETELY change and we have Ulrica alone on stage. Stephanie Blythe is such a fine artist! First of all I think her voice is warm dark chocolate with some pepper. And even though this is a relatively small role that only has one scene she makes her character quite memorable and even likable. And I must only imagine her voice is gigantic, that’s someone I would LOVE to hear sing live! She masters Ulrica’s aria with easiness that allows us to see deep within the character she created.

A sailor arrives and she predicts he’s going to have a promotion and Gustavo is so delighted to be there that he actually makes her prediction come true. A page arrives, Gustavo recognizes him, he works for Amelia. Amelia would like to speak to the gypsy but privately so Ulrica sends everybody away but Gustavo stays in to listen. 

Sondra comes out in a fabulous burgundy coat with fur around it and I’m like “she’s got the best costumes in this opera” and yes, she indeed does! I’m a diehard fan of Sondra, I adore her, and she’s definitely one of my favorite singers and my favorite soprano for sure. That voice of hers is something out of this world, I have never heard anything like it, and I remember quite clearly that when I first saw this opera I was so amazed with her voice. It was different but it sounded SO right!

I’ll praise a little more of Sondra’s artistry in just a bit, but back to the plot, Amelia tells the gypsy she’s in love with the king. The king who is listening in is absolutely delighted but Amelia wants to rid herself of this feeling, after all she’s a married woman, married to the king’s bestie of all people! Ulrica tells her that there is a plant she must pick in a dark part of town at midnight that will wash away her love and give her peace but it’s a very dangerous road. 

A fantastic trio starts, Ulrica doubts Amelia’s will power, Amelia is terrified but resolute in going and Gustavo is determined in following Amelia to the dreadful place to persuade her not to give up on her love. Absolutely wonderful trio, tense and all kinds of awesome! But let me just talk about Sondra’s costume just a little bit more. In the middle of this scene she opens her coat and you can see she’s wearing a velvet GORGEOUS dress with peacock feather drawn on it in beautiful golden/burgundy/black colors! And I think all the costumes that Sondra wears are just the right color for her complexion and figure, they make her look even more gorgeous than she already is naturally. I have a sneaky feeling the colors, cuts and types of clothes were chosen with her as model always, especially because this is a new production and she’s the first person to do it.  

An awesome thing about this opera is that it changes from water to wine in a matter of seconds! One minute you have the tense trio and the next you have the whole male chorus on stage (the disguised court people) asking for Ulrica to foretell their future.

Gustavo is having a blast asking Ulrica to foresee his fate pretending to be a fisherman. This music reminds me of old amusement parks music, the way the scales are put together is as if Gustavo is playing in a park. And also Marcelo’s carefree interpretation adds to that feel of absolute fun. Ulrica is kind of terrified, because she indeed has powers and what this man is saying makes no sense with what she’s foreseeing. 

She actually sees that he is a great man but she also sees his fate marked in his hands. At first she won’t tell him what she saw, and I love Blythe’s take on this character, she is perturbed by what she’s seen. He commands her to speak and she tells him he’ll soon die by a hand of a friend and at this very moment the orchestra comes in like a thunder! TUM DAAAAAM!

And as you would imagine Gustavo does not believe her and sings “è scherzo od é follia” mocking Ulrica’s prediction. When I first saw this opera I didn’t particularly like Gustavo, I thought it was so very rude and inconsiderate of him to mock Ulrica like this, and his whole silly and impulsive attitudes did not amuse me. But then watching it again I noticed that he took her prediction very seriously indeed and now is scared to death that a friend of his will murder him. This is a way to distract his companions (because, after all, one of them could be his murderer) and make them forget about the whole thing. He even throws around her cards and I remember first seeing this and my jaw slowly opening incredulous of what he was doing.

Gustavo asks who is going to be his assassin and when Ulrica tells him that it is the next man who shakes his hand Gustavo tries to shake everybody’s hand to prove her wrong. But none of his loyal servants warm up to the idea of shaking his hand just now. Hence arrives the bestie and hottie (what? ha) Renato and without question shakes his hand revealing Gustavo’s identity to Ulrica’s horror. Gustavo pardons and pays Ulrica and a mob of people who have heard that the king was there invades the stage. Everybody loves him and wants a little piece of him. The act ends with a huge ensemble where nobody can really understand a thing anybody is saying because they are all expressing different opinions and feelings all at the same time with an orchestra. But it’s glorious!

We have the interviews also in this On Demand deal! So first Deb spoke to Stephanie Blythe about the role and it really did help clear out her character’s true identity in this interview and Steph is such a lovely lady!

Then we got to hear what Marcelo Alvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky have to say about Ballo. I think it’s so cute that the three leading singers have such a fantastic relationship because it does show on stage. The way the two of them spoke of Sondra was downright adorable. It’s such a pity that these interviews are like 3, 2 minutes long! They should be longer! I know that the singers need to rest but they are just so much fun!

But my favorite pieces of music start in act 2! The amazing introduction to the second act to me tells the story of the opera until this point, there’s love, betrayal, fun and hate, all those things we love in a Verdi opera.

Amelia has arrived in the dreadful horrible place to pickup her forgetfulness plant thing. She looks so fabulous for someone who is going to a dark horrid place. With a lightish green velvet dress and coat and covered with gorgeous jewelry, maybe she was at a dinner or something…  I didn’t like the piece of white see-through fabric she had over her head, they could have come up with a better looking fabric, it looked kind of cheap and didn’t agree with her costume. But anyway, it must be for sound or image reasons, not that I think that a mere piece of fabric can affect in any way Sondra’s insanely gigantic voice and perfect projection but I’m no fabric sound specialist, I was actually quite bad at Physics in school.

She starts out singing and I’m absolutely transported, I feel such a deep connection to this woman’s voice! Don’t ask me why, I really don’t know but her artistry draws me in and I could watch her sing something over and over again and never tire! Her introduction of the aria is so heartfelt and emotional it makes up for the fact that the stage is absolutely bare and you can’t tell why Amelia is so terrified.

This role is very heavy and that’s one of the reasons I love it so, I’m actually more inclined to like heaver Verdian soprano roles like this as opposed to the Gilda kind of roles. This aria is so gorgeous, Amelia is thorn between doing the right thing by getting the ‘forget me’ plant and her love which is begging her not to forget him. It’s so very sad and Sondra brings to the table just the right amount of emotion, so it isn’t over the top dramatic but authentic and believable. That’s another thing about Sondra’s characterizations in general that I think is superb, her characters are all believable, made of fresh and blood.

But back to the piece during the aria, that she sings for a while on the floor which I think is such an incredible feat especially with this difficult repertoire, she picks up the plant at midnight and some sort of specter comes to haunt her. She’s desperate and throws the plant away and begs to God that she may be spared with the most amazing vocal lines. Her pianos which grow into enormous sounds of awesome are my personal favorites. She got quite an ovation for this aria.

Gustavo arrives and Amelia is like “Are you kidding me God?” , no she isn’t, but I would be. It is at this moment that you see why Amelia and Renato got together, they are both people of their word and extremely honorable. Even though she’s so in love with him and he is practically throwing himself on her, Amelia is resolute in doing the right thing and tries to send him away. But of course Gustavo is the king and is never told what to do by anybody so he lingers on declaring his love while Amelia’s strong ice wall begins to melt. It’s so sad to see her expressions of “oh God that’s all I wanted to hear but I can’t”, after all, who can resist such brilliantly composed love music such as this?

This was the first time I experienced the Sondra/Marcelo pairing super chemistry. Do they have an insane amount of stage chemistry or what? Because in this moment Amelia finds out that her love is actually corresponded which makes her decision even more difficult. One part I particularly love is when Gustavo asks her to say she loves him and her struggle to actually say the words is so poignant, you can see her going through a whole roller coaster of feelings in 15 seconds while she says it.

Gustavo is so happy and but Amelia still pleads him to protect her from her own heart. And when Gustavo says a rather too excited “M’AMI!” Amelia looks at him like “have you even heard any other word I’ve said but that?” to which he replies a quiet “M’ami” and makes the decision that seals his fate ignoring all friendship ties.

We get to a love duet that culminates in such an explosive beautiful way at the end it brings tears o my eyes! And when he asks her again “Amelia, tu m’ami?” her reply is full of joy and passion “Si! T’amo!” she opens up her arms loosening up for the very first time in the opera. They finally approach and end the duet and in each other’s arms and it’s just so romantic! The crowd went absolutely wild with this duet, more than 30 seconds of nonstop applause. And it’s funny to look at the performers because they are truly SO HAPPY, they are laughing and kissing all ‘YAY this duet is so difficult I can’t believe we did it!’

The couple has about those moments of applause of happiness because Renato arrives. And of course he has to be the best friend ever and warn Gustavo that the conspirators are on his heels, furthermore he trades coats with Gustavo to pretend to be him so the king can escape. While this happens Amelia has put her ‘invisibility cloak’ (aka white weird fabric) on and even her own husband can’t recognize her, well, it’s dark. They agree that Gustavo will flee while Renato will escort Amelia back into town, but Renato is not to utter a word to her or remove her veil. What an awesome friend you have, hun Renato?

As he leaves all the conspirators arrive and are very disappointed to see Renato instead of the king. They want to see the face of the beautiful girl they believe Renato was ‘making out’ with. And even though he struggles to protect her Amelia takes off her veil to everybody’s surprise ESPECIALLY Renato’s. He screams “AMELIA!” and she says “Oh ciel pieta” that could easily be substituted by “Oh God I’m fucked”. As Renato repeats her name slowly she knows she’s doomed! This is probably one of my favorite moments, don’t ask me why, maybe it’s because of the lighthearted “Ha, ha, ha” music with the tense situation. Because for the conspirators it’s really no big deal, they find it rather pathetic actually that a man would go out of his way to come cuddle with his own wife in the moon light. And Renato is fuming! 

We get an insight into what Amelia and Renato are thinking and come on, Renato has a reason to be totally pissed off! Since from what he’s heard the ‘mystery lady’ was having major relations with the king, the king he tirelessly was trying to protect. And you can see with these amazing close ups that Renato is upset almost in the verge of tears, it’s really very sad. Could you imagine the disappointment? Your best friend and your wife.

Renato makes a date with the head conspirators and they all leave amused with their lighthearted “ha, ha, has”. But all you can really look at is Hvorostovsky’s expression of anger, hurt and hate. As the voices fade he approaches her, she faces him bravely, he grabs her by her coat collar and kisses her neck in such a possessive mad way that if that man ever did that to me I would faint on the spot! And then proceeds to lead her quite brutally off stage holding her by her coat collar and the act ends.

Curtain comes and interview time! Such a lovely interview with Sondra, she’s really a sweetheart, she is just like that in real life. Oh God she was so nice to me I wanna see her again! Then we get a quite nice talk with the director David Alden where he explains the production and his views on Gustavo’s personality and true purposes. And then another interview with Katheleen Kim and Keith Miller, Keith was actually a football player! Wow! 

One think I also remember from that day a year ago when I saw this in the movie theater was that I had a nice chat with an old lady sitting next to me. She was with a friend and they were talking in English and I don’t really remember how but we got to talking. She was also Brazilian but we spoke in English after all neither of us knew the other was Brazilian, weird, I know. I remember she told me she actually saw this opera live only the week before at the Met and that after the opera she was talking to Fabio Luisi and Sondra Radvanovsky and she had told Sondra that she had been born to sing Verdi. I was so dazzled! I mean that lady actually knew that GODDESS who was singing so heavenly on that movie screen! I guess that I myself wouldn’t believe it if I learned than less than a year after that I would be going to Sondra’s dressing room to chat with her myself on her invite. Bottom-line, THANK YOU GOD! 

Third act, I know I’ve already said that this or that scene is my favorite,  this is one of my favorite operas so I love most of it, but this first part of the third act holds a very special place in my heart. Renato arrives back home with Amelia and throws her violently on the floor. Hit, why does he do this? Because he’s mad, yes. But also because, and this I noticed because of an interview Sondra gave at Classic Talk, Dmitri has to rip out her dress and as Sondra herself said he does get a bit carried away when he’s on stage. And we can see that he is a pretty strong man, so if you look at Sondra’s back right in the beginning you will notice that her dress is already opened so no accidents will happen at the HD. Smart Metropolitan Opera!

But man I love this scene, Sondra and Dmitri also have an insane amount of stage chemistry together and if you haven’t seen the video of how Sondra met him, please DO! I honestly do not know how she can keep her cool or even remember her words with that gloriously perfect barihunk all over her! Kudos for Sondra, one of the many reasons why she’s one of my heroes! I mean come on, they are embracing and he says his last “e tu morrai” in her shoulder, it resonates on her skin, that has got to give MAJOR goose pups at the very least!

I love it that this scene is kind of confusing, because even though he’s saying harsh words to her and she’s pleading they are also almost making out! It’s kinda hot, and Sondra pulls off an incredible kind of seductive thing at the intro of her AMAZING aria!

This aria is like, out of this world, the first thing I did after I got home the day I saw this on HD was download the audio of Sondra singing it. It’s so absolutely still but also desperate. A woman of honor pleading for so little and not pleading for her life, but just for a moment. Again, that’s why they are together in the first place, she’s putting her son’s well being before her own just like her husband did for the king. I don’t think it would have worked out for Gustavo and Amelia, the flame would have burned out for sure. Again an insane explosion of sound and emotion I have never seen anybody bring to the table quite like Sondra does. She is really one of those people that was born, destined to do this and furthermore she has the most down-to-earth attitude ever which I think is paramount and makes her acting even better. 

Because for me the singer’s personality does shine through when they are performing and I can see the ones who are humbled and grateful to be able to sing this glorious music and the ones who merely make use of the music to put themselves in a pedestal. Something Jdiddy always says and I totally back is that the performance has everything and nothing to do with the singer. Of course it has a lot to do with the singer, he has to be in good shape, well rested and prepared, but when the curtain rises it’s all about the music and the public who paid good money (people that have economized for weeks) to watch the opera.

Getting very off track here! The aria ends to an explosion of applause. Renato lets her see her son and Amelia picks up her dress and leaves in shame. Now another aria I love, Renato does not have the strength to actually kill her because he blames Gustavo for seducing her into cheating on him. This aria is magnificent because you can clearly see both sides of Renato, his vengeful hateful side that only thinks of vendetta and also the tender and soft side that is still in love with Amelia. The music changes with the words and it’s like magic on a baritone’s throat! The orchestral music alone is glorious and being paired with one of the best Verdian baritones in the world is just heaven! I particularly like the bit when you see his both sides “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima, la delizia dell’anima mia” it’s so sad how he adores his wife so much, to call her “the delight of my soul”. Harp and flute come in as he remembers the sweet times he had with his wife, this is so heartbreaking and beautiful. Dmitri has real tears in his eyes and I’m like ‘Oh God how could she!’ even though I know she tried so hard to resist. Seriously this man ROCKS this aria! It’s also a roller coaster of emotions that he masters and conveys in the most heart drenching way, bravo, bravo, bravo!

I always talk endlessly about my favorite singers, I think that’s a trade mark of mine! After a good ovation the conspirators arrive and Renato tells them he wants to join forces with them to kill the king. At first they don’t really believe him but Renato even offers his own child as a hostage to his word, clearly blinded by hate and jealousy. They all want to be the actual person to kill the king so they decide to write each their own name in a piece of paper and draw one, the name drawn will be the one who will kill the king. Amelia has perfect timing and arrives just as they are finishing and Renato tells her to draw a name. She’s terrified, of course, but also looks stellar, is it just me or Sondra looks extremely pretty in this production like, in every scene? 

As everybody by now must have guessed she draws her husband’s name and hence begins more glorious music! Oscar comes in all bright as the sunshine and invites the couple to a Masked Ball, Renato is delighted and no more has a grim expression. Even though Amelia says she can’t go Renato informs Oscar that they are both going. The scene ends and Amelia I resolute on preventing Gustavo’s death.

Now Gustavo is back at his chambers doing the right thing for once, pity it’s already too late. He’s to send Renato and Amelia their homeland, Renato in a higher rank so that they can both live in peace being apart. Oscar comes in and gives the king a note written by Amelia warning him that if he comes to the ball he will be killed. But as Gustavo does not want to seem cowardly plus he wants to see Amelia once more so he goes to the ball.

The out of nowhere a bunch of masked people come in beautifully dressed all in black and the stage becomes a huge ball room all done with mirrors. Renato arrives with the conspirators and followed by the angels of death. Renato tries to persuade Oscar to tell him which one is the king but he does a rather weird Olympia dance thing while he sings that kinda irritated me as much as it irritated Renato. Maybe Oscar irritates me because he’s the sole essence of the part of Gustavo that irritates me. Ah well...

I found it rather funny when Dima simply picked up Oscar and carried him/her effortlessly around the stage while he sang. Renato does get something out of Oscar as to how the king is dressed that is quite enough. There’s a dance and I love to see the singers dance!

When all of a sudden sad violin solo and the lights dim and we see our lovers come on stage. Sondra is again wearing a GORGEOUS dress, she’s the only lady in the ball who isn’t wearing black but rather a burned light scarlet pink dress that looks like it was designed for her (which probably was). Amelia sees Gustavo and tells him to run away, they do this in hushed voices and incredibly intimate piano. Gustavo recognizes her and the most exquisite exchange happens, a very melancholy goodbye. As Gustavo says goodbye for the last time Renato appears and stabs him in front of everybody. The guards seize Renato and are ready to execute him when the nearly dead king stops everybody. He asks that Renato is pardoned and also tells him that Amelia is pure and innocent that he never touched her and the veil of hate that blinded Renato’s judgment falls off. He is now horrified at what he’s done, he’s killed his best friend who is with his very last breaths apologizing to him. Gustavo gets up and walks his very last steps to the sound of his mourning friends and Amelia’s beautiful soaring lines. He falls and dies and there’s a huge BANG moment and the opera ends with Renato on the floor crying for his friend and Amelia getting to her knees beside Gustavo.

Well that was gigantic enough! I'm worn out, I can barely keep my eyes opened! If you wanna see more funny videos of Sondra and Dima, which you should because they are hilarious, there are also this, this and this. I'm off to bed because tomorrow I'm going to head back to São Paulo! Peace everybody!

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