Review: Boos for the Met's Handsome New Ballo Weren't Deserved

Friday, November 09, 2012 - 12:00 PM

Verdi's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' Verdi's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

From the first scene, the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Un Ballo in Maschera was to be a grand night for booing.

Though the Thursday opening was full of excellent singing from Marcelo Alvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky while Fabio Luisi reminded the world that he's a great conductor with the right repertoire, the production by David Alden (a veteran director only now seen at the Met) had vocal detractors who booed after the first scene. Early on, the production took the Verdi opera into updated, semi-surreal realms that had a stage full of characters heading out for an evening with the opera's fortune teller in the top-hat-and-cane fashion of a 1930s Broadway musical.

Was it that radical? No. Like many updated productions, this one was set in the 20th century between the wars. The stage was clean and uncluttered with lots of black white and gray. Visual symbols asserted themselves periodically. Probably, the production wouldn't have been booed if given by the New York City Opera. Also Verdi's gritty manner – particularly in Ballo, whose tale of a Swedish king's political assassination lacks the composer's usual break-out tunes – doesn't lend itself naturally to fancy abstraction. And this production wasn't a simple updating.

Though we hear Ballo as pure Verdi from start to finish, such works inevitably drew on stimuli that's not known to us today, resulting in a piece that no doubt felt far more heterogeneous in its own time than what we now hear. Directors such as Alden attempt to recapture that quality with a modern theatrical language familiar, from Expressionistic lighting to the Broadway flavor of lighter moments. But unlike Willy Decker's less aggressively updated La Traviata, Alden's concept is, for his detractors, less easily tuned out.

And I wouldn't want to. The visual vocabulary of Paul Steinberg's sets, unified by a series of diagonally geometric shapes, created one handsomely composed stage picture after another, and, in the masked ball scene, had some appropriate Zeffirellian grandeur.

Relationships among the characters were beautifully drawn, sometimes exploring the fine line between violence and affection. And there was wit: The fortune teller Ulrica talked about consulting Satan and then swigged from a flask in her purse. I did part company with Alden's ongoing use of Icarus imagery, seen initially in an ornate stage painting but becoming more prominent, suggesting that King Gustavo's assassination had that myth's sense of visionary hubris. In fact, Gustavo is just morally corrupt. But this was hardly grounds for dismissing the production.

Musically, the performance showed how top artists become even better. That wonderful breath control that has allowed Hvorostovsky to take long phrases in a single breath is, more than ever, a vehicle of deepening characterization, his voice having grown beautifully into Verdi repertoire. Alvarez doesn't vanquish memories of Luciano Pavarotti, who brought a special darkness to Gustavo, but he's as fine as any Verdi tenor singing today.

As Amelia, Sondra Radvanovsky has less exterior vocal beauty than ever, though the voice can do the work, and the complete package (presence, theatricality) is formidable. I've never been a Dolora Zajick fan, but those who are will be happy with what they hear. As the king's page, Oscar, Kathleen Kim had the toughest assignment – wearing wings, as if to portray the king's inner Icarus – without sacrificing her vocal artistry. In the pit, Luisi's use of orchestral weight, his choices of balances and overall sense of theatrical momentum couldn't have been more authoritative.

Photos: 1) Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Anckarström and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III 2) Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III (Both photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)


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Comments [25]

The best is to listen without watching.These modern "geniuses" -- who dare to change the intentions of the authors -- pretend to create something "new" but in fact are only capable of distorting the creations of others!

Jun. 30 2013 07:27 AM
Ted Cerame from Perris, California

Cool Observer you said it very well. It is good to know that a person such as yourself with your talent as a wordsmith is out there standing up for the old and true, the opera we grew up with and came to love so much for what it is. Thank you and keep up the good work.
I have to wondeer if the Met is doing so badly that they need to resort to carnival tricks to sell tickets; to reduce this grand form of art to the lowest common denominator in order to bring into the house people who have no connection to grand Opera?
Great Opera is for Opera Lovers. Always has been, always will be. Opera Lovers are one of the smallest but strongest minorities in the world.
For myself folks I am fed up with trying to reach the powers that be. Ah but the power of the Alli Dollar! Seens like everyone on Gleb's payroll are writing not for Art but for that nice fat paycheck. I may be wrong but...

Mar. 10 2013 05:04 AM

Hated the very, very STUPID production and sat next to two Board of Trustees of the Met who said it was the single worst production that they've ever seen in a very long opera-going life. When asked why they didn't tell Peter Gelb, they answered that "dissent is not tolerated from the Board." Peter Gelb thinks he knows best and is shoving his bad taste and inappropriate efforts to generate buzz and controversy and publicity down our throats. This production CEO intimidates critics, corporate style, by the innuendo that they are old fogies and going to be responsible for the death of opera, but it is he who is killing the art form by making ignorant and inexperienced directors and designers more important than the composer and librettist and the authenticity of telling the story in its period. Why original periods are important is because then the visuals are felicitous with the concepts and narrative being expressed as opposed to fighting or stretching or branding the story to suit some individual extraneous obsessions and zany, if not inappropriate distractions.

Mar. 09 2013 12:50 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I did not see the new production of Ballo at the Met but for the photos I agree with the boos. The truth is that most new productions at the Met are made with very BAD TASTE. It does not matter if those productions are contemporary or not, it matters that they are made with bad taste The production of Manon looked nice and the photos of Rigoletto reveal a colorful staging but most new productions do not follow the intentions of the composer. I will not go to see a Tosca who does not place candles next to the body of Scarpia because the music was composed expressly for that scene and something else does not much the music. The Met wants now to change librettos also and the next new production of Fledermous in English will include new lyrics never contemplated by the composer, I think that to be an absurd. The music was expressly composed to be sung in a certain language, Do you imagine a play of a work by Shakepeare changed for children or in another language other than English? I saw one in Spanish so I did not understood why Shakespeare was so famous because the rhyme was lost. Did you ever see Carmen sung in English? I saw it and it was horrible. Shakespeare with different words? I think that has also be made many times. That is not art but an insult to the author, to make the play easier for children and IGNORANT people.

Mar. 09 2013 12:36 PM
Linda A from New Jersey

I loved this production! I normally prefer the traditional productions and stage sets, which keep true to the period, but this was gorgeous to watch and lots of fun. You never really knew what was going to happen next on stage.

This "modern" production is not a cold empty minimalist staging like Willy Decker's La Traviata. This has plenty of visual eye candy, great detail, and clever whimsy.

Oscar's role is very delightful and entertaining with the amusing winged and suited costume and choreography. Dmitri Hvorostovsky's role as the Count is a sexy portrayal where one second he's ready to strangle Amelia and then switches to lusting after her. Everything about this production is sexy, the sets, the costumes, very film noir.

I would love to see it again.

Jan. 10 2013 10:00 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The role of Gustavo lll [Riccardo] was one of my first professional roles. It proved in today's broadcast to be a fine vehicle for Marcelo Alvarez. All the principals, orchestra and chorus were in splendid form, particularly Sondra Rodvanovsky as Amelia, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato, and Stephanie Blythe as Ullrica and, though it was a small role, sung , however, by star coloratura sopranos as Hempel and Tetrazzini, Kathleen Kim as Oscar was admirable Fabio Luisi controlled the totality of the aur I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, have sung the title role or leading tenor role in six operas by composers Prokofieff, George Antheil and their likes and am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ, where I teach all the actor roles in the Shakespeare oeuvre and to big-voiced singers all the Wagner opera roles. I am an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare."] On my three websites,, ,, and www.Wagner one can download my singing in Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Tristan, Parsifal, Die Walkure, Lohengrin, Otello, Rienzi, La Juive, Die Meistersinger and Fidelio. KUDOS to today's broadcast performers !!!

Dec. 08 2012 06:04 PM
Greg from Brooklyn

I too was at premiere, where I very much enjoyed the singing. Glad to be staying home this afternoon & listening to singing, without being distracted by silly stage business.

Dec. 08 2012 10:56 AM

"Verdi himself changed the setting of this opera from 18th century Sweden to 17th century Boston as he found the need." Yes, and the need was imposed by the government censor.
Opera is killing itself by these lame-brained efforts to become "relevant" to stupidity and poor taste.

Nov. 24 2012 07:14 PM
Floria from NYC

And yet another opera I will not see. I so agree with Arnie and Peter....I cannot stand the updated versions of these great works of art. Why can't the Met put on new contemporary operas with these new contemporary "effects" What an operas to fit the times! (Bet no one would come.) Why destroy something that existed in itself as beautiful and not have to "update" to make relevant today (I really question that - relevant) or show how "modern" these directors are or should I say perverted with some productions. I hate it all!! Having sung in Ballo, Tosca and Siegfried....I have to say I'm glad I don't have to deal with the delemma - artistically! Maybe we should lighten up some of Rembrants paintings, or change Cologne Cathedral from it's beauty to a glass structure...Why pick on opera! I think the reason is because these directors don't know a thing about singing and opera. You can't do it in theater....Shakespeare has been tried but who wants to see Macbeth in a suit and tie? How successful have these productions been? Opera seems to be the whipping post for these directors who want to be "different" and "relavent." Here's to the dusty, here. They're gold dust.

Nov. 15 2012 01:38 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Thank you, Sandra, Igor, and Henriette, for at least discussing the singing, which is not mentioned by ardath_bey, though he/she claims to speak for "art"). In opera, the most essential art (once you get past that of the composer and, sometimes to a lesser extent, the librettist) is the music, so the "art" that matters most is that of the musical performers. If the singing is good, sometimes as in the recent "Faust" at the Met, it can trascend directorial silliness of "concept."
George, below, refers to an occasional inability to "see the connection between the dancing and the plot", so, the question should be asked: does it violate some abstract principle of that art invoked by ardath_bey that the singers should see a connection between what is on the page and what they are being asked to do in putting it across? does it violate some principle of that same "Art" (since I guess it should be capitalized when used in a proscriptive or dictatorial sense) that is held back by "conservatives" for the late Mr. Verdi's (and his librettist's) sense of what he was writing to be considered by the performers and even by the director? Who is the greater artist, after all, Verdi, or this soon to be forgotten David Alden? what about the problem that frequently arises from these "concept" productions, i.e., that the text is at odds with what is being shown on stage. Should this not matter? If this disconnect puts the singers off their game (e.g, the emotion contained in the text and musical arc of this aria is not harmonizing with this business you're making me do), is that a conservative thwarting the greater Art of the nitwit's "concept"? For example, if Wagner intended for Sigmund to see a glimmering sword in the ash tree's trunk, is the production better served by not having so mundane a concrete detail portrayed?

Or, what sense is there in moving "Gianni Schicchi" to 20th century Florence and peopling it with ersatz mobsters (not very prevalent in Tuscany, as far as I know), and having everyone fighting over the most valuable mule in Tuscany (big deal, in the 1950s!), and being warned of the not very 20th century penalty (amputation of a hand, then exile) for conspiring to forge a will, when none of these things are real in the time period which the director has chosen, in disregard of the text?

Enough for now!

Nov. 15 2012 12:42 PM
sandra from brooklyn

I took "Un Ballo" in last night. The production was stunning from set design to costume design and the use of color was highly effective. The singing was breathtaking; it was rare to see such a range of voices featured so prominently in the cast--all of them excellent. Until last night, I'd never felt chills from opera choristers. The orchestral music was equally breathtaking and stands out as being more intimately related to that sung by the vocal artists to great effect. Verdi is to thank for that, but I must say the conducting played no small part. The house was packed, abuzz with foreign language chatter as people feverishly exchanged notes during two intermissions. It seemed as though the audience could barely contain themselves, hardly waiting until a final note had been struck at the end of a scene before exploding in "bravos." I've never heard so many bravos at a Met production--or anywhere else for that matter--in my life. I have no idea how one could be so distracted by staging and set design to the point of not enjoying it when treated to such beautiful music.

Nov. 15 2012 12:47 AM

I'm glad Gelb's upsetting the right people. Conservatives are the death of the arts (among other things). If it were up to them, opera would've been dead a long time ago.

Traditional productions, stagings, sets and costumes make me sick. They're stifling, ridiculous and embarrassing. Opera composers were the first ones to revise, change and recycle their own music so I'm sure they would approve new stagings of their work.

Gelb's creating a new audience with his new stagings and HD Series and for that he must be praised. And for you reactionary opera freaks, stay home, no one wants to smell your stuffy colognes, perfumes and outfits at the opera.

Nov. 14 2012 01:00 PM
L. Lubin from Ft. Lee, NJ

Verdi himself changed the setting of this opera from 18th century Sweden to 17th century Boston as he found the need.

When Robert Carsten's Eugene Onegin opened it was booed, too. Now it is considered one of the Met's best productions.

Yes, there are bad 'regie-theatre' productions. There are bad traditional productions, too. But perhaps the casual opera-goer doesn't notice those as long as their expectations are filled.

Nov. 12 2012 12:32 PM

A note for Mr. Feldman, Your point about new productions with singers swinging from the trees (haha) is well taken. I mean, I used to loathe the new production, for example, of Madama Butterfly because I found the puppetry distracting. But think about it: opera operates on many levels and the music is really what it is about. Had the new production of Un Ballo been on CD you would not have even seen the antics onstage, only the beautiful voices, the strings, the Verdi chorus. So the license given to the staging provides a vehicle for freedom of expression, which is what art is all about, isn't it? You could have Verdi himself swinging from a tree as long as he was simultaneously composing another opera, I wish I wish. The current cast's glorious voices I am sure had Verdi's big toe tapping in his tomb. Try to lighten up and be amused and pleased with new productions.

Nov. 12 2012 07:04 AM
Fred from Queens

These comments are quite entertaining.

Nov. 11 2012 06:59 PM
Davidson Garrett from Manhattan

Mr. Sterns says "I've never been a Dolora Zajick fan...." I was shocked to read this? She is the greatest Verdi
mezzo in the last 20 years! Not since Cossotto has there been any singer who has "owned" the Verdi mezzo repertoire like Dolora Zajick!

Nov. 11 2012 06:57 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

The Met is completely misguided producing operas modifying the intend of the composers. Their music was composed for certain specific staging not for imaginary stagings. Most of the times the new Met productions do not match the musical intentions of the composers. The Europeans DO NOT LIKE their new productions neither.
The new productions at Bayreuth have reached the level of the ridiculous introducing stagings completely alien to the stories and the music, for example a Lohengrin in a laboratory of rats and a new born baby throwing his umbilical cord to the rats. Was that the intention of Wagner? Why not a Ballo in Maschera with the principals singing on top of trees if it is only to INVENT new stagings?

Nov. 11 2012 11:03 AM
deslie from Greenwich Village, NYC

I have visited Gustav III's tomb in Stockholm. Gustav III was flamboyantly gay and he loved the opera and all the arts. As king he felt it his duty and right to use the taxpayers' money to support the arts in his country. He was lavish about it, huge fab productions. Meanwhile, the people hated him for not attending to the country's infrastructure (road repair, etc.). So they wanted to get rid of the king. He was seen as immoral. The production we saw at the Met portrayed him as morally ambiguous, in need of assassination. I have found this little piece on the web about the king: "The most prominent queer [sic] man of the eighteenth century was King Gustav III (1746-1792; ruled 1772-1792). The king's sexual habits were the subject of numerous rumors. In begetting an heir with the Queen, he was reportedly assisted by his crown equerry, Adolph Fredric Munck (1749-1831). Gustav III had many male favorites at the court, including Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. The king's sexual inclination towards his own sex is not in doubt. His reign is remembered as a golden age of Swedish cultural achievements." This may also account for the seemingly asexual (did they ever actually DO it?) relationship between the king and Amelia. He was gay; was it just infatuation and guilty feelings for that? The Icarus stuff was about out-there hubris. That was very true of Gustav III's personality, as he was flam to the max. And costumes, even the down to the Icarus wings, well, totally him. So I say the wings worked given King G's personality.

Nov. 11 2012 08:02 AM
Henriette Arzewski from New York Cty

An inspired triumph for all involved. The set designs by Paul Steinberg inspired. The fine singers sang , acted and looked all the better in this integrated production.I think there's something melancholy in Verdi's music which was well represented. Costumes in the ball scene tasteful with lovely crystal-like headdresses.I'm in my seventies, by the way. Met customers better get with it as Europeeans have already. The old sets turn me off.

Nov. 10 2012 01:58 PM
Mary Jane Hodge

Didn't see Ballo but did love La Traviata last year. Gosh you people who insist on historical accuracy are missing a lot of great theater! Looking forward to Ballo!

Nov. 10 2012 12:35 PM
arnie from NYC

More ridiculousness. Fred and Ginger did it much better. . I've been going to the Met since 1956 and now these theatrical mis-directors are telling me I never understood what any of the operas I love are all about! Part of going to the opera is to be immersed in the time and place in which the story is set. I want to see Paris in 1839, not Greenwich Village in 1960. I want to see Scotland in the 10th century, not Macbeth in a tux. I want to see Mantua in the 16th century, Faust in 16th century Germany, etc. I don't need guards with AK47s to tell me that Fidelio is a timeless story of wanting to be free. Maybe "Streetcar Named Desire" should be updated so Stanley can be a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and Blanche can get off a( modern) Bus named Desire? How about Otello in 1960's Harlem where the Moor is defending his inter-racial marriage and taking a stand against bigotry?
Then maybe I'll get it. Why doesn't somebody backdate an opera? - maybe set Boheme in ancient Rome where the bohemians hang out at the roman baths, Unfortunately, I will no longer attend many of my favorite operas - the perverse Traviata,the truly absurd Rigoletto coming up, the sterile Faust, now Ballo and ,very sadly for me, after seeing all of Lepage's 16 hour video game, Wagner's Ring.

Nov. 10 2012 12:01 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York

My wife and I saw the production, which I found beautiful. I have seen "Ballo" several times, and this time the music sounded better than ever before. There were times when I didn't see the connection between the dancing and the plot, but it didn't matter, since the dancing was so wonderfully imaginative.
This production restored the opera's original setting: Sweden. For political reasons, the story was moved to Boston, which made no sense whatsoever. This production of "Ballo" is not merely the most beautiful I have seen and heard, but also the most historically accurate.

Nov. 09 2012 07:25 PM
David from Flushing

I am half seriously awaiting a new production of Aida that moves the action out of Egypt to WWII NYC with a ticker tape parade and the famous sailor/nurse kiss.

Nov. 09 2012 07:09 PM
Igor from NYC

I went to see the premiere. One thing I have to say- it was absolutely beautiful. The staging was minimal but inventive, had a lot of interesting and meaningful ideas. Styling and costumes were great and gave a great addition to the set visuals. Overall, the production was very interesting and visually striking. Dolora Zajick sang beautifully. Ulrica character was really serious and comical at the same time (loved her styling!).
That was truly a new "out of the box" production for the MET.
There was nothing kitschy about this production.

Of course if you want to see another dusty old fashioned production with velvet curtains and full size castles on stage - stay home.

Who cares if we did not see another castle and a horse on stage.
Im an frequent opera goer and I loved this production (Im 28 yo)

I heard that "boo" from mostly 60+ folks in the orchestra. "What do you mean no castle?? I have been teasing my hair for 3 hours and now no caste?--BOOOOO!!!"

Get over it.

The creators did a great job with this productions.


Nov. 09 2012 06:48 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Looks llike a typically stupid and irrelevant attempt to show that Verdi couldn't get by just on musically telling the story presented by the libretto, but that he needs the suport of irrelevant and extraneous silliness imposed by some far more hip latter day director, without whose embellishments we, the ignorant masses, couldn't possibly "get" the opera.

When I saw the kind of stupid "film noir" B&W ads int eh "Times", I thought to myself, hmmm; guess we can miss this one. At current ticket prices, I guess we will be avoiding kitsch like this.

Nov. 09 2012 04:38 PM

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