'Well, the singing was good."
Such were the comments heard after opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's latest foray into operatic controversy with its new, mid-to-high-concept production of Un Ballo in Maschera, though in this case, the above-mentioned praise isn't faint at all.
The David Alden production, which has been running for the last month, will be beamed live to six area movie theaters at 12:55 p.m. Saturday, and is likely to have its ultra-mobile cameras focused on the singers. That's how it's done. The staging concepts that were so heartily booed by audiences in the opera house are likely to be less relevant to movie theater audiences.
The singers may not be a five-star Verdi fest, but a solid four-star one headed by Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Álvarez, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, plus a singer the opening night didn't hear but maybe should have: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (who sings Ulrica), an artist too seldom heard in Verdi.
And the production? Most Verdi operas simply aren't dependent on exterior decoration (one exception being Aida; spectacle is part of its ancient Egyptian milieu). Musical information is concentrated so much into the vocal line that if the opera is working on a high level musically, you could reset Otello in a spaceship and still have it work. I saw one such production in Zurich; when the cast hit its stride, I had a full-fledged Otello experience.
The political assassination saga that is Un Ballo in Maschera takes its place among Verdi's great operas without any of the composer's typical breakout tunes, but is full of musical characterizations tapping into an elemental psychology. It transcends its surroundings.
The intermittently perverse Alden production has mostly sins of obscurity that would loom larger in Wagner operas, which operate on a more scenery-sensitive symbolic level. This approach is Brechtian: The stage apparatus doesn't try to be faithfully atmospheric but aggressively borrows images from many times and places to support the director's view of the opera's interior world. In Act I, that view is 1930s musicals with top hats and canes.
Some viewers might also take exception to the fortune-teller Ulrica in 1930s dress, promising to consult Satan on certain matters and then swigging from a flask in her purse. Modern accessories can be a buzz kill in opera. Personally, I loved it.
Much of the rest is abstractly handsome, but with a recurring image of Icarus that I didn't get; at least it was decorative. Character relationships are worked out in detail, and that's important.
Musically, conductor Fabio Luisi is in his element. By now, no seasoned operagoer expects vocal plushness from Radvanovsky (Amelia), but she can sing the role and is an extremely compelling actress. Álvarez does have that Mediterranean blaze in his voice, and though his sense of theater has grown, you don't always care whether his character, Gustavo, is assassinated.
Hvorostovsky is the star, having grown beautifully into a number of Verdi roles, still with his vocal agility and a certain life-and-death Slavic intensity from which Verdi always benefits. You might feel sorry for Kathleen Kim, who plays Gustavo's page Oscar with plenty of vocal allure but is periodically compelled to don wings, as if to portray the Icarus that the king wants to be.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.