Review: Another BALLO, Another Peculiar Reinvention, at Barcelona's Liceu, under Riccardo Frizza

Fine Cast, with De Tommaso, Pirozzi, Rucinski, Barcellona and Blanch, Head Graham Vick-Jacopo Spirei Production

By: Mar. 04, 2024
Review: Another BALLO, Another Peculiar Reinvention, at Barcelona's Liceu, under Riccardo Frizza
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UN BALLO IN MASCHERA—A MASKED BALL—certainly makes for a juicy opera, on paper at least. It has a plot filled with passion, jealousy and conspiracies, and a score by Giuseppe Verdi that has some of his most memorable music, including a great duet, plus unforgettable arias for soprano, tenor and baritone, and some first-rate music for secondary characters (Ulrica the fortune teller and Oscar the pants-role page) and chorus.

The production at Barcelona’s gorgeous Grand Liceu Theatre didn’t stint on the resources for the cast and Verdi sounded as good as he should under conductor Riccardo Frizza with the company’s orchestra and chorus in fine form. But the production conceived by the late Graham Vick (who died from Covid before it opened in Parma, the co-commissioner of this version) and carried out by Jacopo Spirei? Oh, well. We’ll get to that soon enough.

This is an opera with a checkered past, starting with its commission by the San Carlo company in Naples that was rejected because it featured the assassination of a monarch on stage. (It was originally called GUSTAVO III, after the king of Sweden.) It was back to the drawing board for the composer and his original librettist (Antonio Somma via Eugene Scribe), including more censorship problems for a projected premiere in Rome after Verdi lost patience with Naples. (It finally premiered in the Italian capital.)

Consequently, we have two versions that make their way around to opera houses today: one that goes back to the original Swedish setting and another that shifts the action to non-royals in Boston (after all, who cared about a murder in Massachusetts, besides Lizzie Borden?).

The masked ball remains the culmination of the action in all the versions. But the ball wasn’t all that was masked in this production. This one threw gender fluidity into the mix: The cast wasn’t always wearing masks on their faces but there were men in dresses, women in suits. You get the picture. A kind of “life is a cabaret, old chum!” Even the king—Gustavo III was historically “flamboyant”—may have been carrying on with Oscar the page and though the king seemed to have a “thing” for Amelia—wife of his good friend, Renato, the star baritone role—it doesn’t seem to have been consummated (though it was declared) in the libretto.

The cast at the Liceu, happily, was pretty strong, even if soprano Anna Pirozzi had some warming up issues before her often-compelling lyric instrument was ready for prime time (i.e., she had trouble floating the notes in her entry aria). She turned in a wonderful duet, “Teco io sto,“ with tenor Freddie De Tommaso’s Riccardo (aka Gustavo)—a great piece that is not necessarily a sure-fire success, as the Met’s production proved last fall. Pirozzi was outstanding in the poignant aria, “Morrò - ma prima in grazia,” as she begs her husband to allow her to say good bye to their son before (she thinks) he kills her for supposed infidelity with Riccardo.

De Tommaso—who makes his Met debut next season—has a powerful, attractive voice that can produce some strong legato singing and high notes, as he did in tandem with Pirozzi, as well as in his urgently sung aria, “Forse la soglia attinse - Ma se m'è forza perderti,” in Act III. The subtle performance by reliable baritone Artur Rucinski made Renato’s quick change of heart—turning from ally to foe of Riccardo/Gustavo—almost feasible. He did a sumptuous “Eri tu” in Act III.

I liked mezzo Daniela Barcellona’s Ulrica, particularly in “Re dell´abisso, affrettati,” as she conjured up her magic powers, while soprano Sara Blanch was a convincing Oscar, pert but sexually entrancing, in “Saper vorreste di che di veste,” and elsewhere. Basses Valeriano Lanchas and Luis Lopez Navarro did good work as the conspirators Sam and Tom, giving, along with the Liceu’s male chorus, a strong, snide performance in the laughing aria in Act II, which set off Renato’s anger at his wife and Riccardo/Gustavo.

This isn’t the first time that this kind of sexual underscoring has been used in a production a BALLO. According to the record books, for example, there was a successful one of the Swedish setting that took place on its own turf, by Goeren Gentele more than half a century ago (that Met audiences might have seen if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash before replacing Rudolf Bing as general manager). It played blatantly with King Gustavo’s reputation as being gay or bisexual, even if that wasn’t what the composer had in mind. It was merely the conceit of a director looking for a hook to hang a production (or himself) on.

The more new opera productions I see, the more I wonder if many of the directors being chosen to usher the art form further into the 21st century even like opera. Or, do they simply see developing a new approach to a work as a kind of brain teaser?

Of course, first impressions are a funny thing. Sometimes, I go to some new approach that I take an instant dislike to, but it grows on me in another season. Other times, I have my mind changed by a different set of singers. In the case of this BALLO, I doubt that the barebones production could do that. Designed by Richard Hudson in a noxious green with lighting by Giuseppe di Iorio, I’m sure it carried through the ideas of the director, as did Virginia Spallarossa’s choreography and Hudson’s sometimes-lurid costumes.

As in the current David Alden production at the Met, the Liceu’s BALLO features a winged figure prominently, but for different reasons, though both relate to the character sung by the tenor: The Met’s refers to Icarus, whose hubris let him fly too close to the sun, while the Liceu’s is supposedly the angel of death, boding things to come. “Great minds think alike”? I wonder.

Luckily, when it comes to satisfying those of us out front, it’s difficult for a director’s vision to totally get in the way of Verdi’s grand music. At the Liceu, the fine singing was key to the success of the evening.

Photo: Anna Pirozzi and Freddie De Tommaso in Barcelona's BALLO

Credit: A. Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu



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