Alden Drops the Ballo: His Milquetoast Take on Verdi’s Classic Fizzles at the Met

bal 0826a Alden Drops the <em>Ballo</em>: His Milquetoast Take on Verdis Classic Fizzles at the Met

Sondra Radvanovsky in ‘Un Ballo in Maschera.’ (Courtesy Met Opera)

“They’re straying into different dramatic areas,” the English mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer told me recently of today’s Metropolitan Opera. “But I wonder if they’re ready for David.” I was speaking with Ms. Palmer for a profile of director David Alden, and her concern made perfect sense in the lead-up to his Met debut last week, directing a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. For a long time, he was the kind of director who simply didn’t work at the Met.

Along with his twin brother, Christopher, and others of their generation, Mr. Alden, now 63, shook the world of opera in the 1980s. Beginning their careers at a time when the art form, particularly in America, sagged under the weight of massive, elaborate sets, the Aldens and their ilk pared down the visual component in visceral, politically charged productions of the classics. David in particular became known for ferociously violent, vivid shows.

His dreamy, visually striking version of Ballo for the English National Opera in London in 1989 was one of the most important productions of the past few decades, ushering in a new, more open-minded era in the traditionally staid English opera scene. He has remained a vital, busy artist, and Peter Gelb’s Met, seeking to make up for lost time, decided that it was ready for him. Was it?

Yes, but sadly, who cares? Despite eliciting some boos at Mr. Alden’s curtain call, the production, which premiered on Thursday in front of a drearily sedate crowd, was strangely tame. Unlike his pathbreaking English National Opera Ballo, Mr. Alden’s Met version, conducted by Fabio Luisi, cannot be said to have ushered in much of anything. There were glimmers of inspiration and interest throughout, but nothing that caught fire during an uneasily chilly evening.

Censored in the mid 19th century, when it was new, for its inflammatory depiction of a regicide, Ballo is the story of a Swedish king in love with the wife of his closest friend. It is characteristically Verdian in the way it crashes together the personal and the political, but the mixture is stranger and more volatile than in most of the composer’s works.

The opera combines elements of farce, melodrama and surreal, narcissistic fantasy, and Mr. Alden includes hints of all three. He seems to have imagined much of the piece as taking place within King Gustavo’s mind—a perfectly good idea—but the action was never quite intense or weird enough to support that concept, and the mood never as clearly defined or compelling as the sharp, vivid lighting.

Mr. Alden has also suggested that the relationship between Gustavo and his friend, Renato, is the opera’s true love story, rather than Gustavo’s illicit passion for Renato’s wife, Amelia. That’s also a legitimate idea, but the lack of tension—or any connection at all, really—between Marcelo Álvarez’s Gustavo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Renato made that a dead end.

Mr. Hvorostovsky’s smoky and insinuating voice is theoretically well-suited to Mr. Alden’s moody, ominous approach, which makes it especially unfortunate that he was such a bland, generic presence. Mr. Álvarez, and Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia, were more successful: both in good, ardent voice and Mr. Álvarez as game to act as he’s ever been at the Met. Yet the ensemble never gelled or felt connected to an overarching vision.

Even the visual element lacked Mr. Alden’s characteristic flair. The walls come in and out, and the ceiling—a gigantic painting of Icarus falling from the sky—pivots up and down, but the effect is curiously weary. The production gives the general impression of a brainstorming session, a mess of ideas that haven’t had the chance to settle.

It is difficult to precisely place the blame for a disappointing production, but it is reasonable to assume that the problem of this Ballo goes beyond just this show. If someone as experienced and responsible as David Alden can’t produce something exciting or interesting, there is reason to question whether exciting or interesting is consistently possible at today’s Met.

Some shows work, and some don’t—that’s the nature of the business—but at this point in Peter Gelb’s tenure as general director, which began in 2006, one particular trend has become obvious. The successful productions of the Gelb regime have disproportionately been ones that have been created elsewhere and eventually transferred to the Met, including Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly, Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott’s Satyagraha and Patrice Chéreau’s From the House of the Dead.

Willy Decker’s spare, focused La Traviata, the closest correlate to Mr. Alden’s take on Ballo,another Verdi classic, was made into a popular DVD after its debut at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, five years before landing in New York. All of these shows were created under conditions of far greater time and focus than those afforded by the Met’s frenetic sprints of rehearsals. They could then be revived in New York and refitted for the new space and new casts: a demanding process, but one that is less labor- and time-intensive than creating something from scratch.

Especially when compared with those critical and popular hits, the Met’s homegrown productions have been inoffensive at best and disastrous at worst, from Bartlett Sher’s variously incoherent, twee efforts to Mary Zimmerman’s condescending takes on bel canto gems to Robert Lepage’s brainless Ring cycle to serviceable but generic productions of standards like Carmen and Il Trovatore. Add to this list Mr. Alden’s thoughtful but unfocused and clearly harried Ballo.

The Met today is just not a place where real theater artists can make stimulating work. Part of the trouble is inertia: the difficulty of creating exciting productions in a place that largely ignored the theatrical element of opera for the better part of a century.

Another, related issue is a jam-packed schedule—a long, relentless season of multiple operas per week, nearly 30 in total—that forces the company to be more a factory, endlessly churning out product, than a theater. The company also depends for ticket sales on star singers who may understand that they have to be adept and “theatrical” on stage to survive in opera today but who are not, at the end of the day, comfortable working with directors who have truly provocative or difficult ideas.

These historical and logistical limitations will be tested in coming years as darlings of the international avant-garde like Dmitri Tcherniakov and, reportedly, Martin Kušej make their way to the company. They are used to many weeks of work with singing actors well versed in their experimental styles, and they are also used to working at companies with lower-volume seasons than the Met.

Mr. Gelb should be commended for understanding that good directors are integral to good opera. But generous gestation periods should not be viewed as dispensable luxuries. You can’t just throw talented artists into the machine that is the Met and expect them to create something memorable; you have to give them the support that great art requires.

It is unlikely that that kind of support will be on offer without a drastic overhaul of the Met’s season, specifically a substantial reduction in its length and the number of productions that comprise it. The only surefire way for the Met to change is if it does less but does it better. That may not be feasible, at least not right away, but it is necessary if an artist like David Alden is going to work at the company and make us glad he did.


  1. MrGuy1804 says:

    I think the prospect of the MET doing fewer shows in a season makes sense (quality over quantity), but I strongly disagree with the notion that the house ignored the theatrical element of opera for the better part of a century. Not too long ago, people would go the MET and lose their minds in fits of delirious applause after Birgit Nilsson, Tebaldi, Corelli, Freni, Leontyne Price, Pavarotti, Caballe, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Cornell Macneil, Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Nicolai Gedda, etc. gave barn burning performances. They simply stood on stage, sang beautifully, knew what they were singing about and listened to what the other singers were saying to them. And people used to get really excited about going to see them.

    Opera is first and foremost a musical art from. If one cannot sing the part, and I mean REALLY sing it, then you cannot REALLY act it. Period. Too much of the characterization is tied up in the vocal line. I’ve never seen a satisfying operatic performance wherein the production was “provocative” while the music making wasn’t up to snuff. What’s lacking are singers/conductors who can credibly get through many of these works and thus carry the drama on their voices and in the orchestral playing. It’s as though the most basic traditions of vocal technique and collaboration between singers, conductors and directors are being lost. Who cares if Don Giovanni has a bunch of doors if the Zerlina sounds like Mojca Erdmann? Who cares if the Ring Cycle is set against a back drop of $30,000,000 revolving planks that have projection screens on them if the Brünnhilde sounds like Deborah Voigt? Who cares where Macbeth is set when Nadja Michael screeches through Lady Macbeth out of tune?

    How about rooting the theatrical elements in the music and the libretto instead of setting Rigoletto in Vegas and creating a “film noir” Ballo that doesn’t make sense? Why do we have to apologize for the art form by setting these shows in places that have absolutely no foundation in the original work? Who is being attracted to the MET by their doing so? Opera will never be able to compete with Broadway or other popular art forms. It simply takes education to appreciate it. So why not just do the best at it we can and let people come to it out of curiosity? Gelb & Jonathan Friend need to wake up and hire the best singers for parts, then perhaps music schools will start producing more real singers and the MET can return to its position as top of the opera world and end the current litany of voiceless beauty pageants that permeate the stage today.