Not everything was perfect in the Canadian Opera Company’s latest production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, which opened Sunday afternoon in Toronto. But soprano Adrianne Pieczonka came pretty close.
Pieczonka plays Amelia in A Masked Ball, a woman in love with a chief magistrate but married to his closest friend and adviser, and every time she opened her mouth, the production moved to another world altogether.
Pieczonka’s soprano has a wide range, but is clear and focused at the very top through to the very bottom. She used breath control, phrasing, changes of volume and gobs of musical colour to give Amelia intense emotional reality, while confessing her love to Riccardo, her would-be lover, pleading for her life with Renato, her husband, when her unconsummated affair is discovered, or expressing her deep love for her son. If opera is vocal drama, Pieczonka gave a master class on how it should be done.
And she was only one of a fine cast of principals. Tenor Dimitri Pittas matched her in vocal flourish and brio, if not always in intensity, as Riccardo, a character originally based on the assassinated King Gustav III of Sweden, but eventually transplanted to America in Verdi’s continuing 19th-century battles with his censors. Pittas has a light voice, but with a youthful edge that communicates readily and effectively. Baritone Roland Wood made a fine Renato, especially in those moments when Verdi allowed him to portray the anguish of a man betrayed by a woman he still loves. Elena Manistina was a little less effective as the soothsayer Ulrica, with not enough range to her emotional palette, and Simone Osborne was charming as Oscar, a page to Riccardo in Verdi’s original, promoted to something of a master of ceremonies in this production, as well as changed from male to female, so mistress of ceremonies.
And that wasn’t the only change to the original in this Masked Ball. Co-directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito moved the story to 1960s America – making Riccardo into something of a Jack Kennedy character, complete with a pillbox-hatted, Jackie-style wife (a character not in the original). Those conspiring against Riccardo are now outfitted in suits and ties, and lounge around in bars with guns and garottes as their weapons of choice. The masked ball of the title (where Riccardo is eventually assassinated) is a blowsy, Beatle-era affair, complete with a string combo and bouffant-heavy women doing the twist. A single space, basically the ballroom of a 1960s hotel, serves as the only set.
Not everyone in Sunday’s audience was taken with these radical departures, and amid cheers for the principal singers were boos for the production team. Not the first time they’ve been heard over the past few years in the Four Seasons Centre when the classics are similarly updated (or destroyed, depending on your point of view).
But in this case the catcalls were misplaced. Of course the addition of 20th-century stage techniques can clash with 19th- or 18th-century musical scores, but I thought the modern conception strengthened the drama. Not in every case, to be sure. That set was cavernous, and often deflected our attention away from the emotional action on stage. And not all the stylistic and superficial trappings of the production were successful (although it was a treat to see a version of Bjork’s swan dress on a COC stage).
What did work were the dramatic touches that Wieler and Morabito added to the original. Giving Riccardo a wife was a gutsy, but powerful theatrical move, increasing our sense of the agony of betrayal that is at the heart of his character. And Amelia’s son, referred to in the original but not always shown, was given a prominent place in two key scenes in this production – when Amelia seeks help from Ulrica, the soothsayer, and, more poignantly, when Renato, his father, is making plans to kill Riccardo. In each case, the intensity and power of the drama was ratcheted up notch upon notch with the presence of a child onstage. It’s not part of the original Verdi production; but it worked as a modern illumination of Verdi’s conception.
So, for me, it’s not just the vocal performances that might draw you to this COC A Masked Ball, as fine as they are. It’s the spectacle of a modern creative team attempting to come to terms, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, with the weight of traditional operatic art. Getting the relationship between old and new perfect is not the point – trying to do so is.