The overture or prelude to an opera is mood-setting, or scene-setting—or opera-setting. So it was at the Met on Friday night. Carlo Rizzi was leading Un ballo in maschera, the Verdi work. Where the prelude should have been suspenseful, it was. It was “on little cat feet,” to borrow a phrase from American poetry. Some onsets in the orchestra were shaky toward the end of the prelude—but no serious harm was done.
The Met’s production is that of David Alden from 2012. It is a good production. (For my review of its premiere, go here.) But there is action on the stage during the prelude—and not especially understandable action, either. I am from the school that says: “With rare exceptions, there should not be stage action during overtures or preludes. The music should have its say, unaided and undisturbed.” But that is a very, very old school . . .
Rizzi led an authoritative Ballo. You and I could pick at this aspect or that. But the opera had its drama—its momentum, its pathos, its excitement—and that is thanks, in no small part, to the conductor. Maestro Rizzi is a wily veteran.
Singing the role of Gustavo, the King, was Charles Castronovo, the American tenor. He sang beautifully. Let me stress: beautifully. He also sang intelligently and securely. He was a pleasure to listen to and see. You may sense a “but” coming . . .
Mr. Castronovo was a size too small for the role. (This is a phrase I learned from my friend Martin Bernheimer, the late critic: “a size too small.”) Given the size of the house, and that of the orchestra, Castronovo may have been a size and a half too small. But he never forced anything; he never pushed—which was key and admirable.
I would much rather hear a beautiful and smooth Gustavo who is a little underpowered than a powerful and barking one.
Our Renato was Quinn Kelsey, the baritone from Hawaii. I wrote in my program: “Easy and loud.” He sang so easily, and with effortless volume. He also put across the emotions of his character: now loyal and generous; now crushed; now explosive and murderous. Kelsey was so good, through all three acts, it seems churlish to register a complaint, but I will: I like the opening words of “Eri tu” with bite, perhaps even a snarl. From Mr. Kelsey, they were semi-crooned.
Separately, I have a question for you operagoers out there—operagoers and song fans: There are many, many beautiful notes in singing. But are there notes more beautiful than a baritone’s high notes?
The Met’s Amelia was Angela Meade, the soprano from Washington State. She has the power and other qualities necessary for the role. In Act I, she was not at her best—adequate, but not her accustomed self. By Act II, she was “hooked up” and Meade-like. Some of her best singing was the soft singing—not the high and loud—in the love duet.
Ulrica was Olesya Petrova, the Russian mezzo. She was an Ulrica, all right: smoky and commanding.
Sitting there, I had a thought, or realization: I have heard many Verdi mezzos over the years. Many Ulricas, Azucenas, Ebolis, Amnerises, and so on. Many of them have been Slavs. I can think of an outstanding Georgian (Anita Rachvelishvili) and an outstanding American (Dolora Zajick). But, you know? I have heard very few Italians.
In the Met’s 2017–18 season, Ms. Petrova sang Federica in Verdi’s Luisa Miller. I wrote,
She was ultra-Slavic, a Marfa of a Federica. (Marfa is a role in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina.) Petrova made Federica a battle-ax, a woman to tremble before. The power she sang with made you sit up straighter.
Un ballo in maschera has a role for a light-lyric soprano: Oscar (a pants role). It was filled by an American with a striking name: Liv Redpath. She was smart, capable, and assured.
In the orchestra, the cello made a good assistant soloist to Angela Meade in the big soprano aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia.” And, in the opera’s dénouement, the timpani provided all the excitement you could have wanted. Those beats, of various weights and in various rhythms, were superbly judged.
It should go without saying that Verdi’s music is well constructed. Let me say it anyway. He writes levity, foreboding, terror. “Well, any composer can do those things,” you say. Correct. But Verdi mixes them all together, on the same page. Extraordinary.
The audience had a laugh in Act III. When the conspirators entered the apartment of Renato and Amelia, one of them bumped his head on the scenery. I wonder whether the Met has workman’s-comp. insurance.