Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Un Ballo at the Ballpark

The local opera company, which is experiencing hard times despite the continuing marketing of its general director, Placido Domingo, once again presented a delightful occasion at Nationals Park Sunday afternoon: a simulcast on the ballpark jumbotron of the season's opening performance, Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera ("A Masked Ball" in English). And to those who may think that a ballpark is an inappropriate venue for opera, consider the precedent of the scene in the movie, A Night at the Opera, where Groucho and Chico have inserted the music for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the musician's scores of the opera being performed (which I think was Verdi's Il Trovatore). When they get to the place where that music is played, the boys pull out gloves and start having a catch in the front of the pit orchestra.

The opera is delightful mostly because it is classic middle-period Verdi--this means lots of melody. As with a favorite of mine, La Forza del Destino, there also is a continuing theme which we hear at the start of the overture and which repeats itself over and over throughout the opera. The overture, by the way, is fairly brief and not often performed on its own as the wonderful La Forza overture is. Although it is not sung, the theme is persistent and in addition to resembling the destiny motif in La Forza, it also makes me think of Hoffman's repeated singing about his disastrous loves in Les Contes d'Hoffman. This use of motifs is another interesting Verdian practice that leads us straight to the Wagner leitmotifs, most notably, of course, in The Ring.

The plot and libretto of Un Ballo is even wilder and crazier than most opera libretti, which is saying a lot. But there is a reason for the madness. Verdi decided to write an opera about a real historical event that had occurred half a century earlier--the murder of the King of Sweden at a masked ball. The censors in still-Austrian-controlled Italy did not like theatrical presentations about murders of kings. So Verdi and his librettist, Somma, had to shift the story to Puritan Boston--hardly a likely spot for masked balls and other such entertainments. Gustavus the king became Mayor Riccardo of Warwick--the names in Boston were also left in Italian, although I don't think Verdi was familiar with the North End, Boston's still-vibrant Italian section. So the baritone Count Ankarstrom is Renato and Mam'zelle Arvidson, listed on the cast list here as a fortune-teller, became Ulrica the witch in the Boston setting. The conspirators, Count Horn and Count van Wartung, became Samuele and Tommaso, two rather low-grade Sicilian characters (reminiscent of Sparafucile in Rigoletto's introducing himself as "an assassin").

This all confused things quite a lot, although the music and what there is of the triangle plot remain fine. There's a wonderful article called "Death of a Libretto" by Henry W. Simon that explains the whole sorry history. This Washington National Opera production, shared with three other houses, like most today, restores the Swedish court setting. However, the characters still refer to each other as Renato and Ulrica (for some reason, Riccardo is referred to as Gustavo, maybe because he's the king) and the soprano Amelia remains just that, Amelia. The music is lovely--I always enjoy the conspirators' "laughing"chorus, filled by "ha-ha-ha"s much as the courtiers' similarly evil-minded song in Rigoletto is--no wonder Rigoletto then sings the aria "O Vile Race of Courtiers".

The concession stands were open--for once, the Italian sausage seemed an appropriate item to snack on, although vendors did not circulate through the stands, fortunately. But the picture was good, as was the sound, and it was nice to see families picnicking in the outfield--the whole day is called "Opera in the Outfield." The ending, tragic of course, especially since the murderer immediately regrets what he has done, is also silly in the way the Rigoletto ending is: the murdered king manages to sing for quite a while after presumably having been terminated with extreme prejudice.

This struck me as the likely high point of the season, which is filled with rather unusual items such as Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, not performed all that often, and Richard Strauss's Salome, which is, and Donizetti's Don Pasquale, a comedy that has tended to elude me, although Donizetti's music is almost always worth hearing. This is a big year in opera for Wagner's Ring. The Met opens next Monday with Das Rheingold, first shot in a new Ring production that promises to be more fun and less literal than the Otto Schenck one that has lasted 25 years there. The Met will also have Die Walkure at the end of the season and San Francisco will have a whole Ring at the end of its season, both next spring.

We were supposed to have a Ring here in Washington too, but the economic stringency has postponed that indefinitely. More's the pity. Last year's concert presentation by WNO 0f Wagner's Goetterdaemerung, done twice, was absolutely magnificent, and the critics agreed, including the estimable and demanding Anne Midgette, whom the Washington Post picked up a while back from the New York Times. This Ballo got mediocre reviews, with the writer asking whether WNO will continue to be a first-rank company. I don't think it ever has been, even though Domingo has until now been able to sign up anyone he wanted and has brought good talent in. Now I think even he can't get great singers to show up for the meagre amounts offered.

Salvatore Licitra, the tenor who filled in for Pavarotti's final two Toscas at the Met after Luciano was forced to cancel, was the king and he is a fine tenor who sang beautifully. I liked the baritone and the soprano and everyone else for that matter, although Ulrica the mezzo (really alto) was a bit off-key. Oscar the page--a famous show-off trouser role for a light soprano, that is, a woman playing a man's part because of how the music is set--was fine although some thought his facial contortions made him seem crazed.

A good time was had by all--and in view of their latest losing streak, nobody seemed to miss the Nats.

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