BWW Reviews: Austin Opera's A MASKED BALL Takes a Backseat to Previous Productions
The atmosphere was festive on Thursday night at the Long Center as patrons arrived for Austin Opera's new and updated take on Verdi's opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, or A MASKED BALL. I have always loved opera companies that have the ability to evolve and recreate productions for modern audiences; in these difficult economic times, where companies are closing down across the country, this adaptability is opera's greatest hope for survival. By its harshest critics, opera is often accused of lacking realism and flexibility, when, in fact, opera is the most visceral and natural art form, requiring its performers to possess athletic and almost super-human abilities. Performers must not only be flawless in technique and vocal expression, but the modern performer must also have the acting chops to match his or her vocal ability. But just as importantly, directors must combine an innate knowledge of the piece with a new and fresh approach, and they must understand how that approach will affect an audience. Typically, Austin Opera always rises to meet this challenge, but regrettably, in this production they miss the mark. Despite some standout performances, A MASKED BALL falls short because of some missed opportunities and questionable choices made by the director, Leon Major.
Before expressing my major criticisms, I'll first focus on a few of the show's strengths. Tenor Dominick Chenes plays a beautiful Riccardo, endowing his character with a classic Italian passion and vocal honesty. The ease and dramaticism of Chenes' vocal style echoes the Italian greats of the past, such as di Stefano and Caruso. As strong as Chenes was, the standout of the evening was baritone Michael Chioldi, a last minute replacement for the role of Renato. Chioldi's bold and rich timbre is everything one seeks in a Verdi Baritone, and he performs his character with depth and honesty. He was a joy to watch, both as Riccardo's loyal and loving friend, and even more so as his vengeful enemy. His performance alone was worth attending this particular production. Playing the role of Renato's wife Amelia, Mardi Byers did not seem nearly as invested in her character and her stiff acting seemed to mirror her lack of vocal flexibility. An audience can perhaps forgive a dry performance if the singer is blessed with immaculate technique and color, but Ms. Byers seemed to struggle in her higher register.
As always, Chorus Master Marc Erck and the vocal power of the Austin Opera Chorus shines, though the extreme stiffness of direction, which allowed for little movement or expressiveness, did not give the chorus the opportunity to show off their renowned acting abilities. Under the direction of Maestro Richard Buckley, the Austin Opera Orchestra was polished and energetic, though this level of energy only called attention to the sluggish staging and direction that marred the entire production.
The minimalist set-which made use of a large number of metallic chairs and projections-caused the show to feel more like a concert version instead of a fully staged opera. While I have never been a fan of substituting projections for set in any production, I understand that they save a great deal of money on set design and construction. Nonetheless, in this instance the abstract projections simply added to the alienation of the audience and didn't lend any vitality where it was sorely needed. And goodness, I must say that I've never been so hyper-aware of the use of chairs in a production. In fact, as the story progressed, the chairs increasingly seemed to take center stage, with performers spending more time sitting on them than off, stealing any opportunity for movement and vitality. Considering the avant-garde approach of the production, I can only assume that the excessive use of the chairs was a sparse and overt attempt at symbolism, but the increasingly indifferent audience never bought into the trope. Even at the end of the opera, after Riccardo has been shot and lay dying, his assistant Oscar hurries to call offstage for help and retrieves not a doctor but a chair for the poor bleeding tenor to hold on to as he draws his last few breaths of air. "He's dying, for goodness sake...Get the man a chair!" Additionally, the unflattering costumes left me wishing that this particular production were done in its own time period. I understand that modern costumes fit the updated piece, but must the lead soprano wear a bulky winter jacket one might see on a ski slope for an entire scene?
There's no getting around the fact that A MASKED BALL is simply a very slow moving story that must be balanced and revitalized with dynamic staging and direction. If this isn't done, then the audience is left with no emotional investment in the characters or in the essential thematic tension of love versus honor. In the end we are supposed to feel some sort of empathy for the politician Riccardo as he lay dying. However, because the staging and direction were so uninspired, the audience is left cold, confused and disengaged and has no reason at the culmination of the story to join the cast and chorus in mourning Riccardo's impending death. This is truly a tragedy, because Chenes' vocal beauty is quite impressive in this final scene, and the tenor simply gets short-changed by poor choices made by the director.
I will say that lack of set & direction gave various secondary and comprimario roles a chance to shine. As an audience member, I felt so movement and character-starved, that any moment of comedic relief was greatly appreciated. Exchanges in Act 1 between Oscar and The Chief Justice (played by soprano Sara Ann Mitchell and tenor Holton Johnson respectively) garnered laughs from the audience. Other standout performances include basses Matthew Treviño and Tom Corbeil as the two leaders of the conspiracy, Tom and Sam. Every moment these gentlemen were on stage, they'd steal their scene; during intermission, I overheard audience members humming their "laughing theme" from the end of Act 2. As Ulrica, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero does a fine job portraying the earthy mysteriousness of the fortune-teller, though at times vocally she was covered by the orchestra. As Oscar, soprano Sara Ann Mitchell played Riccardo's page as a bit of a fairy sprite but seemed somewhat stiff in character. Like Quintero, her light voice was often drowned-out by the orchestra, and even though my seat wasn't far from the stage, it became quite hard to hear her middle and lower registers. Verdi has always been my favorite composer, not only because of his style, but also because of the power and agility of the type of voice it takes to perform his work. Other than a few standout performances, this production reminded me that the classic and full Verdi voice of the past might very well be disappearing.
Even though I have strong criticisms of the direction of Austin Opera's A MASKED BALL, there were truly powerful performances in this production. The vocal beauty and power of the leading men alone were well worth the ticket. Austin Opera's A MASKED BALL will be playing now through Sunday, November 16th at The Long Center at 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704. Performances are Saturday November 8 at 7:30PM, Thursday November 13 at 7:30PM, and Sunday November 16 at 3:00PM. Tickets are $15-$200. For tickets and information, please visit http://austinopera.org/event/a-masked-ball/.