Riccardo Muti is Saving Opera: Un Ballo in Maschera

The dean of opera critics has stated the problem best:

“I have said that in today’s  operatic world too much territory is ceded to the realm of the eye; that even within this realm too much attention is  paid to physical production and not enough to performance and that auteuristic privileges  claimed by directors and designers have too often been flaunted in irresponsible ways.”[i]

The problem was named by the grandmaster of theater historians, A.M. Nagler, in 1981, as “directorial arrogance, …tone-deaf stage directors who seem to suffer from an ailment which can be correctly diagnosed as lack of confidence in the original score.”[ii]

The practice of distorting operas beyond recognition has given rise to a  new term “regie theater.”  The goal seems to be the destruction of Western Civilization’s traditional ideas of culture and beauty.

Many opera patrons react as did  reporter Heather Macdonald when a beloved classic is vandalized by a stage director seeking to advance his or her own career and “the revolution” by whatever means necessary. Her reaction to regie director Calixto Bieito’s  production of Mozart’s lighthearted opera The Abduction from the Seraglio is all too typical of traditional opera goers:

Bieito transferred the Abduction to a contemporary Eastern European brothel and translated the dignified pasha of Mozart’s sadly irrelevant tale into the brothel’s sick pimp overseer. The director fills the action with unspeakable acts of perversion and decadence. The production perfectly illustrates the opportunistic literalism typical of culturally ignorant—and musically deaf—contemporary directors.[iii]

Riccardo Muti, the Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony shares the concern for the future of opera, especially  “directors who don’t know music, who can’t read a score, and who increasingly invent stories that go against the musical intent… Preparing an opera used to be in the hands of the conductor. Now, unfortunately, opera has become the territory of stage directors. This is why I only do pure opera and not opera with directors because so often what they do is an abomination.”

To counter the regie theater, Maestro Muti has, over the past several years, marshalled the Chicago orchestra and chorus and international opera stars to present “concert” versions of Verdi’s Falstaff, Otello, Macbeth, Aida,and now, Un Ballo in Maschera.

Muti has, in effect, created a new  form of performance, combing elements of the traditional concert with features of what was once known as Reader’s Theater.

The earliest use of the term Reader’s Theatre dates back to 1945 when a professional group in New York who called themselves Readers Theatre, Inc., produced Oedipus Rex. Their stated purpose was “to give the people of New York an opportunity to witness performances of great dramatic works which were seldom if ever produced.”

In 1951, a production of Don Juan in Hell, originally written by George Bernard Shaw as part of the longer Man and Superman, was performed using four well-known actors. The performers sat on stools and appeared to read from scripts placed on lecterns, but it was obvious they had memorized the material.

In 1952 Stephen Vincent Benét’s long narrative poem John Brown’s Body, adapted and directed by Charles Laughton, was presented by three readers and a chorus of twenty. Unlike the actors in Don Juan in Hell, who read the part of many different characters, these three actors each represented a single character. Critics and audience members recounted how each was able to come away with his/her own vision of the narrative because the staging left so much up to the imagination.

Reader’s theater is a style of theater in which the actors present dramatic readings of narrative material without costumes, props, scenery, or special lighting. Actors use only vocal and facial expression to help the audience understand the story.

Another term for this is minimalism,  being stripped down of technical and design elements which have allowed  regie directors to impose their own narrative on the opera..

The old study of Oral Interpretation as a dramatic art, also commonly called “interpretive reading” and “dramatic reading”, was a normal prerequisite for performing Reader’s Theater. Oral Interpretation, as an academic subject, was defined as “the art of communicating to an audience a work of literary art in its intellectual, emotional, and esthetic entirety”. Historically essential to pioneer Charlotte Lee’s definition of oral interpretation was the fact that the performer is “reading from a manuscript”.

Chicago enjoyed its own long-running Readers Theater. Shaw Chicago presented the plays of Bernard Shaw for over twenty-five years. Focusing on the word-music of Shaw’s language, director Robert Scoggins did for the Irish dramatist what Riccardo Muti seeks to do for Giuseppe Verdi.

The musical result could be termed  Readers Opera Theatre. Under the director of Maestro Muti, singers present dramatic renditions of the opera score without costumes, props, scenery, or special lighting. They use only vocal and facial expression to help the audience understand the story.

This concert opera can clarify the simple plot, often lost in regie directors scenic  embellishments (See operaonvideo.com to witness what directors have done to Un Ballo Maschera).

The opera’s action revolves around a lover’s triangle composed of the Governor of Boston, Riccardo, the Governor’s best friend Renato, and  Renato’s beautiful wife, Amelia. Underneath the love story is a political assassination scheme. The two narrative strands eventually merge to create a compelling noose of musical dramatic action.

The role of Riccardo encompasses, like the Duke in Rigoletto, the lighter more nimble end of the Verdi spectrum vocally, while stretching to sweeping vocal gestures of spinto weight. Riccardo’s many arias, and the ensembles he leads, supply the tenor with a broad range of opportunities as well as requirements. Francisco Meli was most capable of the required light touch, as in the Ulrica scene when he is in a playful mood. He can also draw a firm line, as in his opening “La rivedrà nell’estasi” or the passionate love duet with Amelia. Meli is capable of adding adding extra weight and thrust to the duet, and his big Act III scene. His death scene combines all those elements, along with the elegance of delivery that differentiates this Verdi hero from others. It is Meli’s mastery of a variety of vocal and histrionic opportunities that makes his performance so distinctive. We get from Meli, even with the libretto’s diluting of the historic Gustavus to a slightly more stock character, a fully rounded person with both humor and passion on display – a rarity among tenors.

The other major players in this Readers Opera Theatre Un Ballo Maschera are all given a wealth of wonderful music. Under Maestro Muti’s impeccable musical understanding and gift for mining and refining every dramatic element in the music, the ensembles emerge as among Verdi’s finest.

The vocal writing for Amelia reflects this period of Verdi in the excision of any cabalettas from the score. Joyce El Khoury retains some wonderful bel canto technique in her impressive vocal arsenal. She excels with the trills that are crucial to vocal expression and some complex cadenzas. El-Khoury has an expressive chest voice, but is also capable of the difficult ascent to a high “C” in her big Act II scene, and another at the end of the love duet. The cadenza at the climax of “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” spans over two octaves beginning on a high C flat and dipping down into chest voice before coming back up. This unaccompanied section, after which the orchestra returns at the very end, has caused some tuning problems even for some Amelias. But not for Ms. El-Khoury.

Baritone Luca Salsi’s Renato shows why no Verdi baritone would want to exclude the role from his repertory. One can hear in performance, from his entrance aria, “Alla vita che t’arride” on, that Salsi has created a  more straight-laced character than Riccardo. Salsi’s Renato is a true loyal right hand man with only the welfare of his master in mind. When he discovers the love shared by Amelia and Riccardo, Salsi soars with “Eri tu”, one of the most spectacularly beautiful baritone arias in the cannon. For Salsi, the way in which the first, minor key part, full of vengeance and rage melts into the major key lament in which Renato reminisces about the days when he felt Amelia’s head resting upon his chest in tender love, evokes a true heartbreaking sense of loss. Salsi reveals the emotional person within the factotum Renato astonishingly.

Ulrica is a relative cameo in length, but the part demands a Verdi mezzo or contralto who is first rate in order to do justice to the demands of her music. Yulia Matochkina is just such a mezzo-soprano. Damiana Mizzi’s Oscar supplies the light touch (coupled with some of Riccardo’s more jovial passages) and saves Ballo from being unrelentingly somber.

The music for Samuel (Alfred Walker) and Tom (Kevin Short), the conspirators, possesses a cynicism that is chilling. Nevertheless the actor-singers added an element of nobility to the plotters’ scheme of revenge.

With  the dramatically intense outpourings of the distraught Amelia and Renato, as in ensembles in Acts II and III, Muti and his orchestra and chorus demonstrate their ability to place contrasting emotions in juxtaposition, thereby heightening the effect of each emotional element. The finale of Act III, in which Oscar is added to the mix, is particularly effective in this way.

Un Ballo Maschera may be a middle Verdi masterpiece, but in the hands of musical masters the enthralled audience  consistently experienced brilliance and beauty from beginning to end.

The night was pure Verdi, straight no chasers. And a joyous Muti and the musicians left the audience drunk with pleasure.

[i] Conrad L. Osborne. Opera as Opera. New York: Propositio Press, 2018, p.261.

[ii] A.M. Nagler, Misdirection. Opera  Production in the Twentieth Century. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1981,pp.10-11.

[iii] https://www.city-journal.org/html/abduction-opera-13034.html

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