Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ballo and the limits of our imagination

Last night I attended Verdi's Ballo In Maschera at the Met, the newest production of the season directed by David Alden. This production fit the picture perfectly on what I read in the book "Opera" by Robert Cannon (Cambridge Introductions to Music). I hear a lot of feedback on new productions: manning the membership desk during intermissions, having a coffee in the Belmont Room or sitting in my seat waiting for the next act to begin. I have a very open mind, with an unlimited imagination, so I love the new productions.

I always tell people that no matter what they think, there is always something positive to find in a production, even if it is just the singing, which is always stellar at the Met.  Many people seem to have issues with the new direction opera is taking, but Robert Cannon has a whole chapter in his book which helps show that there is more to love than just the singing in modern productions.  He helps clarify this new direction and the role a director plays in it.  I always employ this information when I try to change someone's mind.

It has only been in the last hundred years that the role of the director has become important.  In the 'old days', there was no need for a director.  There was only one way to perform an opera; the way the composer intended it to be performed.  Some composers left detailed notes in addition to the music (such as Wagner did for The Ring), while others were a little more vague about what they wanted to see on stage.

In the beginning, all an opera house needed was a conductor.  He interpreted the composer's wishes and set the opera to stage.  As time passed, this job was left to the stage manager, who decided the lay-out of the scene, where singers would enter and exit, etc.  Soon, though, this job became too much for one person as technological advances were made, audience expectations changed (mainly because of the advent of film and television) and productions became more elaborate and complex.

A stage manager or conductor was no longer enough to interpret a work.  What the opera world needed was someone who had a single vision and who could mould a production into a cohesive whole, a director.  So much more was expected of the director; he had to get involved with the acting of the singers, the emotions they needed to portray and the meaning of the roles.  He has the difficult job of finding a balance between text, tradition and modern world.

When a director decides to take on the challenge of mounting a new production of an old work, he can travel two different paths: the traditional or the contemporary.  However, no matter what path he choses, he must always keep the history of the opera in mind.  It is important to learn about the social and political context in which an opera was written.

This is especially important in Ballo.  Even Verdi was not able to mount this opera in accordance with his own wishes.  He created Ballo with an image in mind, one formed by his day and age: the prevalent taste of the times, the artistic conventions, the expectations of the audience and of course the financial, political and social circumstances of the eighteen hundreds.  When Verdi wanted to premiere Ballo in 1859, he was censored in Naples because the opera featured the assassination of a king.  This incident was actually based on true history; the assassination of King Gustavo III of Sweden in 1793 by his disgruntled courtier Anckarstrom.  Instead, Verdi took his work to Rome.  They allowed him to perform Ballo, but only after he changed the setting from Sweden to colonial Boston.  Only recently has the opera been performed in its original context, just as Alden has done in this production.  Alden's Ballo is set in Sweden, but the Sweden of the beginning of the twentieth century, with the men wearing suits and the women beautiful dresses.    

A director must also keep in mind who he is directing for this time around.  The path a production will take is mainly decided by the audience who will get to see it.  Some places are known for new productions and new commissioned works, while others follow the path of tradition.  New interpretations are always needed to keep the audience interested though.  A director just needs to decide what that interpretation will be and for whom it will be.

The Met can afford to have a radical staging of a work as its audience is sophisticated and knows about opera.  I find it a breath of fresh air to see a familiar opera in a new light.  If you go into such an opera with an open mind and unprejudiced, it can be a revelation.  A modern interpretation can be a little more difficult for people new to opera, but they arrive with no baggage, memories or history which means they are more open to different ideas of the same story.  The important thing to keep in mind is to know what you are going to see and know the background of the piece.  MetTalks are a great way to find out about an opera, as is the evening's program which is always available on the Met's website days before the performance.

When it comes to Alden's interpretation of Ballo, he takes the path less traveled.  As often happens in his productions, he pays less attention to the composer's original ideas and focuses more on the hidden meanings and subtleties of the piece.
"I can't really direct something until I feel that what I have to say personally I can say through the piece.  I think that is what an artist is supposed to do...My productions are very much about my inner emotional life." (Directors in Opera, 2006)    
Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun, is featured prominently throughout the opera as a metaphor for the king's days filled with pleasure and illicit love.  This performance is not straightforward, but will have you discovering hidden meanings behind all the going-ons on stage.  

Of course the performance features Stephanie Blythe and Sondra Radvanovsky, both winners of the National Council Auditions and graduates of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  They perform opposite Kathleen Kim, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Álvarez.  So all in all, a stellar cast and a must-see performance which will keep you on your toes right until the end.