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Who Was That Masked Man?

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/31/2004 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Michele Crider (Amelia)
Ewa Podles (Ulrica)
Harolyn Blackwell (Oscar)
Salvatore Licitra (Gustavo)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Ankastrom)
Collegiate Chorale
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Robert Bass (conductor)

In the original version of Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, King Gustaf III of Sweden is assassinated in 1792 while attending the opera in the new house that he had built in Stockholm. Although the Neapolitan censors made Verdi change the locale to the less offensive (and more exotic) Boston (Orsini had just recently failed in his attempt on the life of Napoleon III and Naples was still controlled by France), the historical accuracy of the original story was impeccable. Gustaf had championed the court theater at Drottningholm (still the site of wonderfully elaborate operatic performances) and had turned Stockholm into a cultural center. Of his forebears, Gustavus Adolphus was an amateur lutenist while Queen Christina had enjoyed amateur theatricals (she even appeared in a public performance in the role of a chambermaid) and, at least subconsciously, Gustaf was competing with the memory of the cultural hegemony of the neighboring court of renowned patron of the arts Christian IV (1588-1648). John Dowland and Heinrich Schuetz both worked for this great Dane at the palace of Frederiksborg and at Helsingor Castle. Shakespeare was provided with substantial information about courtly life at Helsingor by traveling English musicians who also worked at the Globe. There was a long history of secular and religious music in Sweden, where, even after the adoption of the principles of the Reformation, High Mass in Latin was still celebrated at the same time and in the same church as more sedate Lutheran services and where religious orders under the control of St. Brigitta performed organum in the fourteenth century.

So the Verdi opera came down as a rather ridiculous portrayal of Colonial New England life, akin in its caricatures to Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West. After almost 150 years, we Americans have had enough. Last evening’s performance at Carnegie Hall was an attempt to restore the original Swedish story and its more rebellious set of regicides. Actually, Verdi chose this mad libretto in desperation after his original idea, that of King Lear, was also rejected at San Carlo.

My father used to delight in telling me the story of Wally Pipp, a first baseman here in New York in the 1920’s. One day, Mr. Pipp was indisposed and, in his stead, the team played a young man named Lou Gehrig. Pipp never got his job back. What dad never related to me was when did the Yankee fans begin to regard Gehrig as a player in his own right, rather than just a notable substitute. Now this is not meant to imply that Salvatore Licitra has the potential to become an operatic superstar, but rather to press the point that it is time to stop thinking of him as the guy who stepped in for Pavarotti at the last minute when the tenor cancelled his farewell performance at the MET (he has since had two additional “final” appearances). Standing on his own, Signor Licitra was a bit disappointing last evening, exhibiting many of the bad habits of the hollow grandstander. Surely he has a big voice, but his self-aggrandizing style of making little of surrounding notes in order to emphasize only the higher ones wore thin relatively quickly. Much more satisfying was the work of Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato (oops, I mean Anckarstroem), a fully formed vocal line which allowed for individualistic tonal emphasis without being but a set-up for “look at me” vocal theatrics. Arthur Woodley and Kevin Burdette were both impressive bassos, the scene between these assassins and Hvorostovsky the best by far in the entire evening.

On the female side, it was really no secret that we were all there to hear Ewa Podles. There was a palpable buzz both outside and inside Carnegie before this opera commenced, everyone talking in excited terms about this fabulous artist. Prior to her appearance, this was merely a concert version of the piece; her slow, noble but slithering entrance left little doubt that she was emerging from the very center of her role as Ulrica (just to add to the confusion, this version retains the Boston name of this character). Podles’ natural instrument is so supercharged that one literally is blown back in one’s seat. Her witch was the true daughter of Hell, her rich contralto a voice for the ages. After her big number in Act I, the ovation lasted so long that Madame was eventually forced to come out of character just for an instant to acknowledge our praise with two slight nods of the head.

However, there is a downside to having Ewa Podles in your cast. As I have noticed at other performances, her very mastery forces one to recognize that the singers around her are hardly of the same caliber. At one point, Licitra sang a few phrases and then there was the slightest of pauses. Ulrica responds, and in so doing, immediately called attention to his interpretive shortcomings. It is as if we are watching amateur theatricals, but the much more talented teacher is assuming one of the parts for this night only. Harolyn Blackwell was a saucy Oscar, exhibiting bitingly crisp diction where appropriate. Michele Crider was simply out of her league. On the non-traditional casting front, both of these women are black, and yet the Polish Ms. Podles played the part of the black character (oh but wait, that’s only in the Boston version!).

All of this was supported in fine fashion by the host organization, the local Collegiate Chorale, whose consistent high level of performance guarantees an interesting and provocative evening. There is something comforting in knowing that this dedicated group of choristers, who sing for the sheer joy of it all, are at the center of such noble efforts. Along with the grossly underrated Orchestra of St. Luke’s, they continue to deliver a solid foundation for these somewhat quixotic operatic explorations, and it was a pleasure last evening to revisit some personal friends. At least I think that it was them; one was never quite sure with all of those Swedish masks on.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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