BWW Reviews: A MASKED BALL Dazzles With Spectacular Singing

Sometimes a new premise of an old work is good; sometimes it's bad. Sometimes it skewers the original meaning, rendering it unintelligible; other times it beautifully illuminates the work's depths and complexities lying, Levianthan-like, beneath the surface. The Canadian Opera Company's latest production, of Giuseppe Verdi's 1859 opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is a decided mix of the two: sometimes confusing, sometimes illuminating, occasionally baffling but very frequently beautiful, and ultimately haunting for its portrayals of love, power, and the roads connecting and ultimately dividing the two.

Originally produced in 2008 at Berlin's Staatsoper, the work, onstage now through February 22nd at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto, is directed by the European powerhouse team of Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler. With a combination of strong, eye-catching designs, unique blocking, powerful chemistry, and some very, very great singing, this is a production sure to divide opera fans when it comes to visuals, but unite them musically.

The plot of A Masked Ball is based on a real-life event, the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III in 1793. In order to appease censors, Verdi set his opera in 1690 Boston, though many directors have placed the action back in 18th century Sweden in an attempt at "authenticity." Given the opera's complex history (politics, censorship, history), the libretto feels as if it could be adapted to a number of troubled times and places. A current Israeli Opera production (from Polish director Michal Znaniecki), for instance, adds allusions to recent political figures (including Saddam Hussein), and is set in an amorphous present. The love story element of the plot (chief magistrate Riccardo loves Amelia, who is wife of his best friendand advisor, Renato) was added, but gives the work an extra dimension of humanism that moves it away from the sphere of the strictly political. Then again, nothing in a Verdi opera is ever just one thing solely, in and of itself, but a myriad of complexity, feeling, and experience.

And so Morabito and Wieler opt to clarify Ball's plot, even as they plumb its depths. Set in an early 1960s Vegas-style nightclub dominated by red-and-white vinyl chairs and fold-down theater seats, Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas) is presented as a spoiled rich boy, his entrance revealing him as a smarmy, sarcastic soaker-up of compliments and collector of hanger-ons. With his bomber jacket, aviator shades, and confident grin, directors Morabito and Wieler present Riccardo as a man who seems to have the world at his feet; his Achilles' heel, however, is his love for the wrong woman. Even as his pillbox-hatted wife flutters by (a Kennedy-esque addition to the libretto), we see a man at odds with his powerful position, moving up the ladder of success even as he moves further away from the love he craves. Pittas's is a man-boy of great depth and intensity who connects with Amelia (Adrianne Pieczonka) for the sense of maturity and reassurance she provides. Not at all the cutesy, swirling party-girl type we've already been introduced to (a sprightly Simone Osborne, in the trouser role of Riccardo's page Oscar), Pieczonka's Amelia is the calm, strong, feminine center amidst a mass of bro-tastic back-slapping conformity.

What makes Pieczonka even more beguiling is her beautiful rich, singing. Whether it's to Riccardo, or Renato, or holding her son, or pacing around an empty club in satin pajamas, the Canadian soprano's voice is rich and full of color, resonating with emotion but fully controlled. She is vocally matched by American tenor Pittas, whose sunny resonance is used to full effect in the first act, his tone becoming more troubled and sombre in the second. As Renato, Roland Wood offers a rich and authoritative sound, his jovial tone of the first act hiding a stormier one that comes to the fore with volcanic intensity in the opera's final act. This is divine singing, moving one out of the realm of the constant thinking the production demands, and into the pure realm of feeling, nay, being itself.

Still, Morabito/Wieler's vision does, for the most part, greatly enhance Ball's themes with smart examinations of class, power, conformity, and deception. The men in this production, for instance, are all kitted out in costume designer Anja Rabes' sleek, tailored designs, and whether in suits or pajamas, they are, in the main, indistinguishable from one another, a veritable "army" of Mad Men-like flatterers, whose intentions are rarely, if ever, pure. Lighting designer Olaf Freese's shimmering, glittering silver-disc-style lights dotted in and around the Four Seasons' stage are a beautiful touch, adding moody, shifting visuals and making for a gorgeous dance between light and shadow that encapsulates the seedy-meets-shiny world. Morabito and Wieler have also highlighted an undercurrent of class divide, with women crowded around Ulrica (Elena Manistina, as a very creepy soothsayer), holding small children and clothed in drab, ill-fitting costumes, mainly powder-blue-polyester maid's jacket-dresses. It's as if all the domestic help at this resort-come-court have eagerly gathered around this spiritual figure for direction, healing, guidance, comfort -a way out of this life, in other words. It's a powerful commentary on the nature of power, especially since it highlights the power divides between the have and have-nots, and between the men and women, of Ball's dangerous, political world.

As if to reinforce this, a gigantic pillar separates the stage into two halves; men and women are frequently placed on either side. In a tableaux that blends the macabre and the surreal, the second act opens with two figures, male and female, hanging from nooses at either side of the immense pillar, as the action unfolds beneath them, we see a woman berate herself for the love she bears to a man who isn't her husband; we see the couple painfully unite, then part,; we see another couple come apart completely. With figures placed on opposite sides of that immense, sometimes gaudy, ever immobile pillar, we witness few, if any efforts to reach across the divide. Ball's characters are ultimately doomed by shifting power dynamics that place real human emotions on a "stage" for all to see, offering a spectacle, not a real, blood-and-guts experience -at least not until it's too late. The titular 'masked ball' is more of a fancy-dress cocktail party, with pouffy dresses and big hair and smart, Venetian-style masks -full of schmooze, short on sincerity. The meta-theatrical elements that begin the production come full circle here, with a shaded Renato sitting, slumped, in a theater-style chair facing the audience, his cronies surrounding him. His anger is real and yet a performance; Riccardo's murder is both a theatrical aside and a painful loss.

For all the modern elements of this Ball, there is much beauty to be had: creative design, superb acting, and glorious, beautiful singing. One comes away from this masked ball haunted by the possibility of having one's own anxieties and insecurities uncovered, but just as keenly resolved to cross the divide into a place of honesty and authenticity. If only we could bring that glorious Verdi sound with us.

Top Photo: Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia and Dimitri Pittas as Riccardo in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of A Masked Ball, 2014. | By Michael Cooper

Bottom Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of A Masked Ball, 2014. | By Michael Cooper

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)