Sun 19 Jan 2014
Un ballo in Maschera has a very convoluted history. Created in the years that preceded the unification and independence of Italy, the opera was originally written as a regicide plot based on the historical facts of the assassination of king Gustav III of Sweden in the 17th century. The very fact that a king was supposed to be assassinated on stage made the opera unpalatable for the censorship in Austrian-occupied Venezia, in the Bourbon kingdom of Napoli and in the church-dominated Rome. Three re-writings later the opera eventually premiered in 1858 on the very eve of the revolutionary movements that led to the creation of Italy, but it was now a completely different story. The historical drama with revolutionary hints turned into a passionate and tragic love triangle story with the national elements eliminated and the political allusions very deeply buried in the subtext. Polish director Micha Znaniecki tried in the production now staged at the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv to recover the political dimensions and I have mixed feelings about the result.
The cast at the current Israeli production has basically two teams, and I was lucky enough to be present at the first performance of the ‘Romanian cast’. All three lead roles were sung by singers from Romania. Baritone Ionut Pascu already sang in Tel Aviv, he may not have impressive natural skills but his voice is expressive and carefully dosed and he was a fine Renato. Soprano Mirela Gradinaru was also a guest and lead singer on the Tel Aviv stage before and on this occasion she succeeded a more than honorable version of Ammelia. Best of all was however tenor Cristian Mogosan who faced with bravery and success the role of Riccardo which was mastered in the past by names as great as Domingo or Pavarotti. He was without any doubt the star of the evening. Shiri Hershkovitz also had a remarkable and creative performance as Oscar the page. She is born in Israel, but her name may also be of Romanian origin
These were the good news. The very bad news was the orchestra, and I need to mention Italian conductor Daniele Calegari who ‘succeeded’ to get the worst of an orchestra which I confess did not earn too much respect from me in the last 20 plus years since I have to follow it. When it was not stridently loud it hardly could be heard. The overture was one of the less inspired opening pieces I heard lately. The musicians seemed bored after the first three accords.
The staging was controversial at best in my opinion. Yes, I know the history of the opera but there is too little political content in the text and especially in the music to justify the explicit statements made by the staging. Big statues of dictators seem to be the fashion of the year or of the years on opera stages in Europe, but the disconnect between the music and what happened on stage was huge. Yes, decors were (again) spectacular, and the costumes were inspired as well (the team that created those is Polish). Opera is however – at least in my opinion – first of all about music, not about staging. Not even the Romanian team of singers obliged to perform in such unsettling environment could save the evening.