March 13, 2009
Deutsche Oper Berlin

A Fragmented Mystery

Michail Jurowski conducts Un ballo in maschera at the Deutsche Oper


Giuseppe Verdi
Un ballo in maschera


Deutsche Oper Berlin
Musical director: Michail Jurowski
Director: Götz Friedrich
Stage design, costume design: Gottfried Pilz, Isabel Ines Glathar
Chorus master: Thomas Richter
Choreography: Andria Hall

Gustaf III, King of Sweden: Evan Bowers
Count René Anckarström: Ivan Inverardi
Amelia, his wife: Angela Marambio
Ulrika Arvedson, fortune-teller: Elena Manistina
Oscar, page: Heidi Stober
Christian, sailor: Simon Pauly
Count Horn: Harold Wilson
Count Ribbing: Ante Jerkunica
Judge: Gregory Warren
Servant: David Knutson

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

A Fragmented Mystery

Michail Jurowski conducts Un ballo in maschera at the Deutsche Oper

by Kate Janeway / Photo:

Michail Jurowski

Right from the start it seemed unclear who was captain of the ship: orchestra, singers or the conductor himself. There was little Italian elegance and sensuality in the phrasing, and where was the inner intensity and nerve that sets Verdi apart from any other bel canto composer? Once in a while the Deutsche Oper's great orchestra blossomed and delivered the passion and longing latent in the phrases, but not for long enough to create a real frame around the performance, which lacked shape, without which the music sounds unexciting.

This became problematic in the singer ensembles. Vocally, Un ballo in maschera is a challenging opera. It is essential that the conductor creates energy out of all the power and passion in the orchestra and provides a clear direction to the musical phrases, rather than adding weight to them. After all, Un ballo in maschera does not have a libretto on the level of a Wagner, or those of Verdi's excellent librettist Boito (Otello and Falstaff). As the text does not survive alone, it is completely dependent on the musical interpretation of the dramatic plot. Otherwise the performance deflates and develops into a vocal battleground.

The climax of the evening was the Russian mezzo Elena Manistina as Ulrica. Her voice possessed a dark, sultry color combined with an extreme range, even across all registers. Her scene was also the one that worked best scenically. Onstage were scattered twenty or so empty doorframes, alluding to portals to another, darker dimension—perhaps not a bad idea for a new computer game. Resting here were the fortunetellers' helpers, dressed in goth or oriental dance costumes. Ulrica appeared silently and wiggled her way across the stage like an evil toad in fake leather. Straddling her crystal ball, a dimly lit half orb in the middle of the stage, she summoned the prince of darkness. It was as if she were fornicating with the underworld. What an amazing performance! Intelligent, magnetic, imposing, and vocally rock solid.

It was also a pleasure to experience Heidi Stober as the evening's fiery and dashing Oscar. With her warm, lyrical voice, she deserved applause for her secure phrasing, organic musicality and dramatic presence throughout the opera.

The staging by Götz Friedrich was generally sparse. In the second act a shoebox-like space represented Amelia and René's home. It contained the domestic dispute between the spouses, and further strengthened the claustrophobic tension of a row that was paused, but in no way over. Unfortunately, neither of the two singers was able to fill the simplicity of the set with dramatic intention. In this scene, Angela Marambio sang her aria beautifully, and one could have wished she had dared to use more of these colors and pianos in the rest of her performance. Ivan Inverardi was a vocally impressive René, but failed to express the core of the character's desperation—feeling betrayed by the two people he loved the most: his wife and his best friend.

The king's dwelling, in contrast to the rest of the staging, was filled with details, color and movement. In the very last scene of the opera, most of the stage was replaced by a revolving disc, creating a swirl of guests and dancers in vivid reds, black and white, setting the scene for the ball. Gustavo himself appeared as Pierrot, and was murdered by René, after being revealed by Oscar. Evan Bowers created a sympathetic portrait of the king, but sounded tired in his last big aria. When he keeled over in mortal spasms, he tipped over the baby theater placed on the far right of the stage, and its tiny, little curtain went down; the reference to Pagliacci was apparent. "La commedia è finita", and so was the evening's performance of Verdi's 150-year old opera.

(Unfortunately the Deutsche Oper Berlin has not provided us with photos of this production)