In review: the COC's A Masked BallReview
On Wednesday, I braved the ridiculous snow for a much-needed Verdi fix at the Four Seasons Centre. The Canadian Opera Company’s current production of A Masked Ball had piqued my interest, both for the exciting cast and for the production, of which I’d only seen a few curious photos. Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito capitalized on the timelessness of the libretto’s dramatic themes: an unhappy marriage, a child caught between arguing parents, maintaining one’s good public image, the desire for revenge. “We wanted to explore how fragile our identity can be, how quickly apparently secure contexts and relationships – social, professional, family or personal – can break down.”
The American setting of A Masked Ball is one from the 1960s, making us immediately think of the Kennedy era (we even see Riccardo’s wife, a silent, yet perfect inspiration of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). It also makes us think of America’s first big example of the dark side of existence as a public figure.
Endlessly interesting to look at, the sets and costumes by Barbara Ehnes and Anja Rabes were colourfully sterile, enhanced with stark yet warm lighting by Olaf Freese. The chandeliers that hung from the ceiling were half disco-ball, half Swarovsky-crystal-chandelier-from-the-Met. They were tacky and fun, and for a few moments at the top of Act II, they stole my attention away from the body hanging from a noose, in plain view once you know it’s there.
The singing was impressive from the entire cast. Tenor Dimitri Pittas (COC’s La bohème, Rigoletto) appeared as Riccardo, starting off with a confident, relaxed sound. I thought he kept impressive stamina throughout the night, and he was thrilling at the top of his range. When he had more sotto voce passages, including dramatic asides, his quiet singing didn’t retain energy, and came across as comparitively under-sung. Dimitri embodied this production’s idea of Riccardo; with confidence bordering on cockiness, he sets himself up perfectly for his inevitable fall. Very Alfredo.
As a foil to Riccardo, rising British baritone Roland Wood portrayed a powerful Renato in his COC debut. It struck me that this role is a beast, and takes until the final act to reveal itself as such. Roland started the night with menacing low notes and an incredible top, and filled out the role as it matured in the final act. His “Eri tu” was spectacular, earning applause even as he quickly rushed offstage.
In the role of Renato’s adulterous wife, Adrianne Pieczonka was a rock star. This is another oddly paced role, and Adrianne (_Dialogues des Carmélites, Tosca) _sang it like the true definition of a working artist. She filled the hall with an enormous range of full and floating sounds, singing every note with intention. Her “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” brought down the house, and rightly so; it takes skill to make audiences sympathize with a cheating wife, and Adrianne has it. _ _I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take seriously a soprano in her jammies, but Adrianne stole the stage using simply her instrument. You can learn from this stuff.
Simone Osborne (COC’s La bohème, Gianni Schicchi, Rigoletto) sang the role of Oscar, a rare pants-role available to sopranos. In Wieler’s and Morabito’s production, Oscar is the stage name of a female performance artist in Riccardo’s circles. Simone acted the show’s ringleader at the top of the first act, creating a party every time she raised her arms, and later she rocked a knock-off of Bjork’s famous swan-dress from the Oscars in 2001 (anachronism can get a pass at a costume party). She also gave us a night of impressive singing. Simone’s was the first real Verdi singing of the night, cutting impressively in the middle range and having musical fun alongside her clear attention to detail.
Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina (Il trovatore) tore through her brief but mighty role of Ulrica, the (evil?) fortune-teller. She was appropriately uncomfortable to watch onstage, as she blindly struggled to her seat, and the anticipation to hear her voice couldn’t have been higher. Elena has a powerhouse of a voice, with androgynous power in the bottom and a top register with which you shouldn’t mess. I loved it.
Smaller roles were at times hard to hear, but their characters were distinct. Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl sang Silvano, and basses Evan Boyer and Giovanni Battista Parodi were thug-like as Samuel and Tom.
The orchestra sounded generous and flexible under the baton of Stephen Lord (Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma). Some singers were overpowered at the usual problematic times, but my orchestra level seats were close to one of the tricky acoustic spots in the Four Seasons Centre. It’s most likely clearer as you go up the rings.
I think Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have the right idea when it comes to what themes to illuminate. I liked that they included details that put the ugly right next to the everyday (the body hanging from a noose amongst the chandeliers), but the execution often didn’t work. The constant secret handshakes happening between Riccardo and Renato of course made their friendship clear, but when a handshake became a symbol of dramatic crisis (the fortune-teller predicted that Riccardo would be killed by the next man who shook his hand) the fist-bump-esque handshake they gave left me feeling a bit robbed of what is clearly a significant moment.
I’m glad that Wieler and Morabito capitalized on the tragedy of the child caught in the middle of his parents’ conflict; I think it’s a win for this production that I felt such discomfort as I watched Renato introduce his young song to two of his thugs. Yet, like the noose and the handshakes, something felt gratuitous about the use of the eerily innocent child to show that danger is woven into this family’s everyday lives. I’d say the directors were fortunate to have such a strong cast in this production; at the moments where the concept failed to help the story in an organic way, we were still carried by extraordinary music throughout.
A Masked Ball plays for six more shows at the Four Seasons Centre. For more info or to buy tickets, click here.