Thursday, 1 January 2015

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse: Ballo in Maschera

From OPERA, January 2015, pp. 52-3

For its new staging of Un ballo in maschera (seen at the third performance, on October 5), the theatre du capitole put its trust in the same creative team behind its 2013 La Favorite. Vincent Boussard’s staging was, it seemed, tailored to a modest budget, and Vincent Lemaire’s minimalist set was basically a blank space, a box within a box. Items of furniture came and went; a recurring motif was the projection, onto the back of the box, of an overexposed 18th-century portrait, which began, at various points, to weep blood. For the brightly-lit, entirely unatmospheric ‘orrido campo’, a ragdoll-like figure hung from the flies. A single welcome flourish came in the final scene with the arrival of a grand, abstract chandelier of thin silvery chains—but it had been quite a long time to wait.

Scenically, then, there was not much to enjoy, and Boussard’s greatest failure was that, rather than make use of a clutter-free space to explore the drama, he appeared content to rely on Christian Lacroix’s costumes for theatricality. Those costumes, however, seemed to have been devised entirely independently of the opera in question: mildly historicized modern dress, a mash-up of suits, overcoats and ruffs for the men. Riccardo, denied any dressing up for his confrontation with Ulrica, had rococo regalia for the first scene and the (maskless) ball itself. Amelia made her Act 2 entrance in a black dress and translucent mac, looking as if she was trying to hail a cab after a night out. The way Boussard dealt with his singers was also a frustrating mixture of under- and over-direction—in the Act 2 duet, Amelia was forced to sing her climactic ‘T’amo’ on her back, feet pointing upstage. What he was trying to say about the piece, or why, was never clear.

There was no such indecisiveness musically speaking. Nor, however, was there much in the way of subtlety or colour. Daniel Oren’s wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am way with the score offered undeniable excitement—and the playing of the Orchestre National du Capitole was lively and virtuosic—but his rubato is a matter more of manhandling than of coaxing, and the big central Riccardo-Amelia duet was more stop-start than ebb-and-flow.

The young Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov sang Riccardo with tirelessly bright and vibrant tone, and his voice is big and exciting, with plenty of heft and ring at the top. The photos in the programme of Carlo Bergonzi, who sang the role here in 1955, prompted unfair comparisons, and served to emphasize how Popov, although clearly capable of some subtlety, seemed to treat the assignment primarily as a vocal showcase. Opposite him, Keri Alkema (an American singer whose CV includes both mezzo and soprano roles) didn’t quite have the amplitude for Amelia, and the voice, glamorous-sounding in the middle of the range but short on spinto steel, tended to thin out in the bigger, higher phrases. Vitaliy Bilyy, another Ukrainian, showed plenty of style and musicality as Renato, as well as a nice, pingy top to his baritone, but the voice itself felt a size too small for the role. As Ulrica, Elena Manistina might well have been having an off-night, but she tired quickly after trying to fill out her mezzo beyond its natural size with forced chest voice and pushed top notes. Julia Novikova’s voice sounded occluded early on, meaning that her appealing Oscar lacked initial sparkle. Among the smaller roles, the Brazilian baritone Leonardo Neiva (Samuel) showed that he’s a singer to watch.

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