The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball, (Un ballo in maschera) was musically gorgeous, but a total miss otherwise.
The directorial duo of Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler set Verdi’s Ball in 1960’s America, complete with predominantly black help, pillbox hats and American flag sequined outfits.
Verdi’s A Masked Ball gives us love, politics, passion, comedy and gravity. It is the story of Count Riccardo, a kind and generous man well loved by most, and his forbidden love for Amelia, his friend and confidante Renato’s wife.
The set design of this Ball is basically a 60’s style hotel ballroom. It was outfitted with several large sparkling light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, various types of cheap seating and a bar at the back. After the first intermission I found myself eagerly anticipating how the set would change for Act II, a night scene in the woods under the gallows. The problem was, even with two intermissions, the set never changed. With the appropriate set changes, this scene in particular could have been so much richer and worked to transport the audience into the moment and intensity of the situation. The two bodies hanging from the gallows was poignant, but the rest of the set seemed out of place and distracting.
The costuming was also underwhelming and personally confusing. At one point there were several men with ties wrapped around their heads, later in the woods at night in pyjamas and in the final act, Riccardo’s page girl, Oscar (Simone Osborne) comes out dressed in a cheap copy of Björk’s iconic dead swan dress. All-in-all, almost none of it worked for me.
Thankfully what makes A Masked Ball worth it is the beauty of the music. The orchestra lead by Stephen Lord and the vocal prowess of the main characters was outstanding. The long duet between Riccardo (tenor Dimitri Pittas) and Amelia (soprano Adrianne Pieczonka) in Act II is breathtaking in all its musical colourations. With these two at the helm it almost feels okay to just close your eyes and revel in the music. Whenever Pieczonka let fly those beautiful notes, that is precisely what I did. I closed my eyes and was transported to a separate world where only her voice could take me—a wonderful respite from the set and costuming.
Pittas’ character gets to be carefree and lighthearted musically as Riccardo and he does this convincingly. His costuming was also off, but his easy going nature and playful smile shone throughout every time he was onstage. The supporting cast, Osborne, Roland Wood as the wronged friend and husband Renato and co-conspirators Tom and Samuel were spot on. Elena Manistina as the seer Ulrica wasn’t strong enough here to make me connect with her even on a surface level.
Pieczonka’s vocal range never wavers throughout, at once low and tender while next robust and commanding. Although innocent of adultery, she does not try to plead her case, she accepts what may come, only asking to see and embrace her son once more before her death at the hands of his father.
Herein lies another problem in this Masked Ball. The presence of Amelia and Renato’s young son was distracting in two pivotal scenes. First, Amelia takes the child to seek out the soothsayer, a woman who had just made incantations to the devil, and later Renato takes the boy to his meeting with Tom and Samuel, to plot the murder of a man the child seems to admire, if not love. What the boy’s presence does do, is remind the audience of the gravity of the situation that his parent’s find themselves in—both desperate in their own way and for different reasons.
It is true that many opera goers feel very strongly about keeping true to the time period of the original work and of course, there is beauty in this. That does not however mean that contemporary staging never works, it just means that you have to make sure that all the pieces fit, allowing the audience to love the production regardless of any bias. This production of A Masked Ball missed its mark.
A Masked Ball is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre until Feb. 22. Please visit coc.ca for tickets and show times.