Sometimes great performance chooses me rather than opposite and seems that Un Ballo in Opera Bastille was one of those events. The original intent on visiting Paris was unseen opera (oratorio) Jephtha by Haendel scheduled for Saturday, but when flight ticketing day came, the flight for 2 nights stay in Paris came up better priced, and there was not a problem yet to find lodging despite heavily booked accommodation during Fashion week in Paris. Thus the choice was almost predefined – to go for Masked Ball in Opera Bastille on Friday evening. And what an evening it turned to be!
Any story of love, betrayal, lust and death might be ordinary enough to happen in common people lives but when you add politics and power to the equation, it calls for royal scene and scale of drama. Even if Verdi initially thought of the story in a Swedish, then German setting, the censorship forced him to rethink and place events in far-away Boston. In fact, this is the only concept in the opera that keeps me a bit confused, especially as the production in Opera Bastille by Gilbert Deflo kept it period-bound through costumes and interactions of protagonists (they never really came close enough to each other to touch), though Italianate names are in conflict with frequent mentions of America and native England. Nevertheless, the music is overwhelmingly beautiful, and the cast assembled for this production fully justified popularity of the masterpiece by Verdi.
There were two main heroes of the night, both I have heard for the first time in respective roles, one of them turned out great discovery, while another, – pleasant surprise in particular role.
Sondra Radvanovsky is one of the great sopranos of current times, my live performances experience includes her Tudor queens at the Met, passionate Tosca (what a leap in London!), and recently in MetHD – Norma. Her Amelia took me a bit by surprise by a depth of emotion embedded in each phrase, especially her phrases that start with piano on a high note with a gradual crescendo, coming from her heart rather than lungs and touching audience deeply. Technically impeccable, heartfelt, convincingly played Amelia by Sondra will stay in the gallery of great operatic experiences.
Piero Pretti was a new name for me, regardless of his wide international experience I have not seen him before. He has very pleasant, light timbre and great vocal technique, his capabilities are a perfect fit for the role of Riccardo. Even if Bastille is one of the most difficult houses to fill, his voice easily floated above the orchestra and conveyed his emotional battle to each audience member.
The third protagonist of the night – Renato, was performed by Simone Piazzola, and somehow he left uneven impression since at some of the episodes his performance was well matching Radvanovsky and Pretti, while at some other scenes he was barely audible over the orchestra and lost in ensembles. In those moments I had a suspicion that probably the artist has not the best day, or, probably, scale and challenges of Bastille are difficult to overcome.
On contrary, there was no problem to fill the auditorium with bright, thrilling and agile voice and boyish energy and flair to Oscar of the night, performed by Nina Minasayan. Her lively, energetic performance brought some light in otherwise grim and dark setting of the stage, and her excellent coloratura was highly appreciated by the audience. She certainly is a name to follow up for future mezzo ranks.
Another impressive mezzo on the stage was Varduhi Abrahamyan in the role of Ulrica. The scene was designed for maximum impact visually, – flames and smoke in abundance, eye-catching red dress and exotic appearance of Ulrica herself as well as her native court members. Her vocal performance surprised with full-bodied chest register and use of a multitude of colours and dedication to her heroine.
The orchestra under the baton of Bertrand de Billy sounded impeccable, the conductor infused the score with enough energy to sound it very contemporary and agile. The chorus was a great partner for orchestra and actually great collective protagonist in the ball scene. The ballet involvement was well justified and choreographed in a way to support the drama of the hearts on the proscenium.
The production itself even if minimalistic is very effective, – you do not need a lot of clutter to depict desolation and hopelessness in the hearts of people struck with impossible love. The predominantly black and white scenery and costumes, occasionally accentuated with red elements, works perfectly well to create a lasting impression. At the curtain call, the audience exploded into prolonged Bravi! and rapturous applause, requesting the cast to come back a few times – not so frequently experienced in Paris where people tend to rush home as soon as the curtain comes down.
Un ballo in maschera
Music Giuseppe Verdi, libretto Antonio Somma
Opera in three acts
Performance on January 19th, 2018
Riccardo Piero Pretti
Renato Simone Piazzola
Amelia Sondra Radvanovsky
Ulrica Varduhi Abrahamyan
Oscar Nina Minasyan
Silvano Mikhail Timoshenko
Samuel Marko Mimica
Tom Thomas Dear
Guidice Vincent Morell
Servant of Amelia Hyoung-Min Oh
Conductor Bertrand de Billy
Director Gilbert Deflo
Set and costume design William Orlandi
Lighting design Joel Hourbeigt
Choreography Micha van Hoecke
Chorus Master Jose Luis Basso
Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra national de Paris