Review: Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2007

The Houston Grand Opera’s first offering of their 2007-08 season was Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”. The cast proved a worthy one, with strong performances from Ramon Vargas (Riccardo), Ewa Podles (Ulrica), Carlo Guelfi (Renato) and Lyubov Petrova (Oscar), and an auspicious role debut from Houston Grand Opera studio alumna Tamara Wilson. Patrick Summers conducted.

The production was by Olivier Tambosi (Director) and Frank Philipp Schloessman (Set and Costume Designer), a creative team whom I praised for their conceptualization of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” (originally designed for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2005-06 season) when the sets were on display at San Francisco Opera in Fall, 2006. The “Ballo” sets, which premiered at the Lyric Opera’s 2002-03 season were both imaginative and wrongly conceived.

Since I need some considerable space to outline my objections to the production, I will report my impressions of the vocal performances first. There are interesting things to say about all of the five principals, but the center of the opera is the lead tenor, Riccardo/Gustavo (choose whichever name you prefer because this production is set in neither Boston nor Sweden, but in a “once upon a time” kingdom).

[Below: Ramon Vargas as King Riccardo; edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Vargas, a welterweight lyric tenor most often associated with bel canto roles, for some years has been cautiously exploring such light middleweight roles as the “Ballo” Riccardo and Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”. In 1999, when he was 34, I had seen him perform Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” to Ruth Ann Swenson’s Lucia in San Francisco. During his visit there (the only season he performed in San Francisco) he replaced an indisposed Richard Margison as Gustavo in “Ballo” for a couple of performances, which are fondly remembered by San Francisco Opera patrons who attended those performances.

Vargas is an under-recorded artist, many fewer studio recordings designed for CDs being made during the past decade, when his career has reached its stride, than the four decades preceding it. Even so, there are some promising recordings of Vargas singing Verdi. These include Verdi’s complete “Alzira” (joined by two other under-recorded artists, Paolo Gavanelli and Marina Mescheriakova) in which he plays the Inca Zamoro with great passion, in this opera in which both Incas and Spaniards appear equally adept at killing or torturing one another and then showing mercy to their adversaries.

Vargas also has produced an album of Verdi arias, conducted by Edward Mueller (a frequent guest artist at the San Diego Opera). On the Verdi album, he even sings Manrico’s great cavatina-cabaletta one-two punch from “Il Trovatore”, consisting of “Ah si, ben mio” and “Di quella pira” with sufficient accomplishment for me to engage in some unconventional thinking about his future roles: “If I saw Luciano Pavarotti at age 40 perform his first Manricos, and if Jussi Bjoerling was singing Manrico onstage in his 40s, why couldn’t Vargas, in the right house, under the baton of a sympathetic conductor like Mueller, . . . ”

Back to the present. Excepting what seemed to be some discomfort with the low D flat and C below middle C in the Barcarolle, “Di tu se fedele il flutto m’aspetta” (which have vexed other tenors also), Vargas proved he could sustain the Verdian melodic line beautifully.

[Below: Ulrica (Ewa Podles), at the picture’s left; the threesome to the right are Silvano (Liam Bonner), Oscar (Lyubov Petrova) and King Riccardo (Ramon Vargas); edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

I was able to see Podles two nights in a row as Ulrica and as the Marquise in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”.

She brings the richness of the contralto voice to roles that most of us have heard sung only by mezzos.

Her Ulrica connected with the audience. She enjoyed enthusiastic ovations both during and at the end of both evenings’ performances that included loud foot stomping, which apparently represents the ultimate form of praise for opera singers from American audiences, when a standing ovation seems an inadequate gesture. Unfortunately, the director’s concept being that Ulrica is seized by fits and spasms, Podles was subjected to as creepy stage direction as any Ulrica is likely to have experienced.

[Below: Renato (Carlo Guelfi) has decided to join the conspiracy against King Riccardo; edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Guelfi is a large-voiced baritone. The second of his two arias, “Eri tu”, is the one by which all Renatos are judged, and he performed the aria magnificently. His interaction with Wilson, who displayed an appealing spinto voice with a healthy, tight vibrato, was one of the vocal highlights of the evening.

I had last seen Petrova as Elvira in a Washington National Opera performance of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”. Her Oscar was appealing vocally, but alas, the collaborators on this production, who seemed generally perplexed as to what “Ballo” might be about, were totally dumbfounded when it came to who or what Oscar could possibly be. They dressed Petrova as a sexually ambivalent, over-the-top Marlene Dietrich character, perhaps costumed as if Dietrich had returned to star in Hamlisch’s “A Chorus Line” or perhaps a revival of “Cabaret”.

Nikolay Didenko and Ryan McKinney were, respectively, Tom and Samuel, providing the crucial bass lines that represent the conspiracy in the Quintet and the other ensembles, as well as projecting sinister interaction with Renato in the scene in which the lots are drawn.

The most likeable of the smaller character roles proved to be Liam Bonner’s Silvano. It was a good weekend for Bonner, who displayed his charm both in “Ballo” and the next evening’s “Fille du Regiment”. Beau Gibson, who did the singing part while a mute William Burden acted the title role in Gounod’s “Faust” in January 2007 in Houston, was back in comprimario assigments, this time the first scene’s Magistrate. That he held the audience’s attention for an entire evening as Faust suggests that tiny roles like the Magistrate will not be in his repertoire for long.

A “Puzzle Box” Unit Set

The “Ballo” production that Tambosi and Schloessman devised follows a pattern that has become all too familiar to patrons of certain opera companies. All of the opera’s scenes take place within the confines of a single unit set, no matter how different the scenes were conceived by the composer and librettist of the opera. I offer the term “puzzle box” to describe both the process of developing the ideas behind the production and the resulting sets.

As with all things that go to excess, I assume there originally was a salutary purpose to unit sets for operatic productions, encouraging designers to find ways to shorten the time between opera scenes and to reduce the amount of required work that must be done by stage hands during performances.

There are many brilliant examples of unit sets, and some of these have been praised by this website. Sometimes the opera (most notably Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”) is so constructed that a single set usually will suffice, but even an opera that calls for multiple changes of scenes can be fit in a single unit if imaginatively constructed.

The technique has been used for years. In the revivals of two Jean-Pierre Ponnelle productions reviewed here in the past two years, the San Francisco Opera performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” and the Washington National Opera’s of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”, they were basically unit sets.

Ponnelle was masterful in designing a proscenium for the five quite different scenes of “Carmen”, in such a way that, with the addition or subtraction of decoration, the set could become an army headquarters, then a tobacco factory, Lillas Pastias’ Inn, a smuggler’s mountain hideout, and a bullfight arena. But in no scene did the images seem contrived, nor did it seem that violence was being done to the story.

Surely, it was the cleverness of the artists like Ponnelle in solving riddles of stagecraft without sacrificing the theatricality of the opera, from which evolved the idea that a much larger group of operas could be presented in a unit set. In October and November of this year, I attended three operas that meet my puzzle box classification. Only one of the three do I regard as a successful production, and I am aware that some of my friends and colleagues think I am wrong even to regard that one as an unqualified success.

One of the other two puzzle box productions, beyond this “Ballo” was the Pountney production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, originally mounted for Zurich, but sold it to the San Francisco Opera, where an intensely negative reaction from San Francisco patrons suggested that the physical sets would not exist for very long after the final performance at the beginning of December. The other puzzle box was one I liked (not a universal sentiment in San Francisco), and plan to see again, that being the Vick production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”.

Perhaps someone who works as a profiler assisting in solving crimes could do a better job in reconstructing the thought processes that went into a puzzle box production like this one, but I will take a stab at it.

It seems to me that at least the production team decided that there were three puzzles to be solved. Puzzle number one: would it be possible to design a set that would allow the public chambers of the sovereign, the very different place where a seer conducts her brand of sorcery, the even more distant and desolate place where executions take place, the home of the sovereign’s chief of staff and the sovereign’s ballroom all to be encompassed in the same construction?

(Technically, there is a sixth scene, where the sovereign is alone in his private chambers, but since it runs without interruption into the masked ball, every production has some device like a curtain being drawn open or a wall being raised that assures that the one scene flows easily into the other.)

Puzzle number two is based on a historical fact. Verdi was more or less recycling the story from a previous French opera by Auber about the assassination of Sweden’s Gustav III at a masked ball. But too many popular uprisings, both before and after Auber’s time, had unnerved various European authorities and their censorship bureaucracies (and, to add to the edginess of authoritarian regimes, one of Auber’s other operas had contributed to the popular uprisings that helped create the nation of Belgium).

Thus, Verdi was forced by censors who would not countenance the enactment of a European sovereign being assassinated to move the site of the opera from Sweden to Massachusetts. But since “Ballo” was based on the Auber opera about the Swedish court, there were abundant precedents for production designers to set later, uncensored productions of “Ballo” in either place.

Thus, puzzle number two to be solved: would the production be designed to accommodate a Swedish king’s court, or a Boston duke’s chambers, or something different from either of these? (Perhaps the profiler will have concluded that puzzle number two was never considered until they felt they had solved puzzle number one. That is the only one that was fundamentally relevant.)

[Below: King Riccardo (Ramon Vargas), traveling in disguise through his strange kingdom, has his fortune told by Ulrica (Ewa Podles) as Oscar (Lyubov Petrova, in white) and his masked courtiers look on; edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Puzzle number three, the least important in the larger scheme of things, but still of interest to the people who ultimately had to manufacture (and wear) a coloratura soprano’s costume: who or what is the character Oscar, and how should he act and be dressed?

I suspect that the thought processes used to solve Puzzle Number One included an arithmetic calculation. Three of the five scenes (sovereign’s court, sovereign’s chief aide’s home, the ballroom) are clearly interior spaces; and a fourth scene is clearly an exterior one. The fifth scene, Ulrica’s lair, is more often than not shown as a cutaway interior and the adjoining exterior of a dwelling located in, say, a harbor area. Since the ratio of interior space to exterior space is at least 3.5 to 1.5, and could be even 4 to 1, why not make everything an interior scene, and make each interior fit the same basic set?

Once that decision is made, there are immediate consequences. One consequence is that much that is literal in Verdi must be abandoned for the surreal.  An obvious example: if Ulrica’s herb has to be collected in the area around a gallows in the darkest part of night, it takes some imagination to have the public gallows inside a room, particularly one that seems structurally related to all the other interiors we see in this production.

I will concede that my following remarks are laboriously constructed. Some might say I am being unappreciative of an artist’s vision, or some might even say I am nitpicking.  However, once opera companies (including Houston Grand Opera) began charging $200 a seat or more, it was presumably to be obtain the best artists and productions available. Therefore, in the interest of consumerism, one must consider not only how well the singers, conductor and orchestra performed (all of whom were world class in the Houston “Ballo”), but what the physical production itself brought to the operatic experience.

The few dozen operas of the standard repertoire tend to be those stories that have been performed tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of times in venues throughout the world, and remain interesting to sizable numbers of operagoers.  They are classic storylines – tales that have survived innumerable retellings.  An imaginative production can illuminate particular aspects of the storyline, but a bad production, that strays from the storyline, can annoy those who have come to hear the tale retold again and confuse persons  who have come to see a classic work for the first time.

Let us contemplate what Verdi intended for the opening scene of the second act, where a superstitious and frightened Amelia is searching for a particular herb in a wild place as a result of Ulrica’s advice to the lovelorn.   Amelia is confronted by Riccardo, and then her husband and those whom we know to be Riccardo’s enemies. We are accustomed to the Ballo characters disguising their intentions and motives, and being surreptitious, but what seems not implausible in either the great Scandinavian or American outdoors, seems utterly foolish if the action is moved indoors.

So the puzzle box requires us to imagine Amelia looking for herbs in the middle of the room, being surprised by the sovereign, and they in turn by Amelia’s husband traveling (in some other part of the room?) with the conspirators. The elaborate instructions by the sovereign for Renato/Anckarstroem to conduct his disguised wife to the city’s gate, also somewhat plausible if in a mysterious, distant place, becomes a baffling instruction in this interior setting.

The idea of the sovereign and the aide’s wife talking to each other in some interior space is not in itself shocking. They well may have run into each other and entered into a conversation without anyone presuming that they were engaged in adultery. The presumption shifts if they are found alone together in a distant outside space for which there can be no conceivable innocent explanation of how they both came to be there.

Once we become wary that the production designers’ puzzle box solution will not accommodate the opera’s storyline, then one’s skepticism about the other puzzles rises also.  The solution to the second puzzle must have seemed clever to the production team, although to me it seemed to reveal a distate of that team for the assignment they were dealt. They decided not to set the opera in either Sweden or Boston, but, instead, in the Land of Once Upon a Time, whose sovereign was King Riccardo.

During the prelude to the first scene, we see King Riccardo, wearing a crown whose shape is not unlike the paper crowns distributed by the Burger King fast food restaurants, sitting on the floor looking at the model of a small stage while the king’s murder is being enacted.  Fifteen oil lamps with masks as shields represent the footlights.  Oscar, dressed in a white shirt and tie and light gray waistcoat and trousers, opens up a trunk filled with masks and throws them on the floor, and the chorus scrambles to get them.

It is clear that King Riccardo’s kingdom is a surreal one, represented by a gray unit set, wide and tall, with columns framing an open space that changes from scene to scene. The open space is the backdrop for a starry sky in the first scene, with two tall narrow windows at stage right.  The multiple gangplanks at stage left lead into the open room.

[Below: the gangplanks leading into the quarters of Ulrica (Ewa Podles, right); edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Ulrica, dressed in gray, operates in a tall gray room with high narrow windows (and a gangplank for Silvano and other visitors to use).  The chorus of women in white dresses are writhing on the floor.  When Amelia’s servant arrives, the women, rather than leaving, simply turn their backs to Ulrica’s conversation.  The arriving courtiers in masks and multi-colored top hats descend the gangplank.  When Silvano returns with the populace, they wave small flags and set off streamers.  Riccardo puts a robe and crown on Oscar.

[Below: Renato (Carlo Guelfi) agrees to protect the identity of a mysterious woman (Tamara Wilson) whom he has found with King Riccardo at a gibbet (where she was searching for herbs) in an adjoining room, while curious conspirators look on; edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Amelia gathers her herbs, wearing a a red violet and purple dress with black half-coat.  The gibbet is a small one, but is the most distinctive furnishing in the front room, buffeted by billowing curtains and snow. She is surprised by Riccardo in his yellow overcoat, and they in turn by her husband and the conspirators dressed in purple and grey suits, topcoats and tophats.

In the only truly effective stage setting of the evening, the now estranged marriage partners’ little boy is in his pajamas, and visits his parents in a room with a very long table in a room with a very tall door, through which Renato and Amelia come and go.  Guelfi and the conspirators are able to use the long table effectively for the chilling drawing of the lots.

Lest any of the audience confuses this scene, nicely presented so far, with a normal production of “Ballo”, Oscar arrives, hops onto the banquet table and, with his pockets filled with glitter, throws it offensively at Samuel and Tom. (One could imagine the two calling for a revote on exactly who is to be murdered at the ball that evening.)

The masked ball itself is one of the truly ingenious scenes in opera, and there have been many successful collaborations between stage directors, set designers, choreographers, conductors and subsets of the orchestra to pull off this great Verdian moment.  It is a series of highlighted conversations which take place between the principals (all of whom are in costume and masks) while a small onstage orchestra plays music and the chorus, usually supplemented by members of the opera ballet, do what one comes to a ball to do.

Alas, the Tambosi-Schloessman puzzle box masked ball proved to be yet another misfire.  First, they decided to put most everyone in the same costume, with everyone wearing one of the Burger King-like crowns, varied only by the costumes of the three conspirators being a different color than the rest.  (The idea of every principal and chorus member wearing a crown is not even an original one.  Beni Montresor, to offer one example, used that device for his production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at San Francisco Opera for 1978 and afterward.)

[Below: the guests at the Masked Ball hear the dying King Riccardo (Ramon Vargas) affirm the innocence of Amelia (Tamara Wilson, at left, with bare head); edited image, based on an Andrew Cloud photo, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The final scene is dominated by a row of five doors of different sizes at the rear of the stage. When there is information to be communicated or questions to be asked between principals (Oscar and Renato; Amelia and King Riccardo, etc.) all the chorus members run offstage through the doors.  When the chorus has something to say, they run in through the doors.  After the assassination, all choristers take off their crowns as a dying King Riccardo stands to sing, then falls backwards as Oscar tries to revive him.

The saving grace for the Houston Grand Opera is that the production is owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. With the possibility of a resurgence in interest in presenting operas as intended, this suggests that a new Verdi-friendly production of “Ballo” might be planned, with costs to be shared by several of the major American opera companies.

One might use this opportunity to study the plans for the 1977 John Conklin production of “Ballo” created for Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli at the San Francisco Opera, apparently destroyed during the era of former S. F. Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg.  Why not just rebuild the beautiful Conklin production, utilizing all the contemporary techniques of set-building and incorporation of stage machinery? One would not expect dissent from the opera companies’ audiences.

For a discussion of another recent production of the opera, and the Conklin production referred to above, see: Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006

Tips on the Houston Performances:

Early November can be a pleasant time for visiting the Houston Grand Opera. The opera performances have an early curtain, so one needs to plan for an early (or late) dinner. I stay in a downtown hotel, from which any point to point cab ride in the downtown sector is a reasonable $6 fixed price, so one can choose one’s favorite downtown restaurant for an early dinner and take a cab to the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts and easily make the opera’s 7 o’clock curtain. (On the way back, don’t wait for a cab at the Wortham Center. Walk the block to the nearby Bayou Place, where cabs routinely are looking for fares.)

Or one can conveniently begin their theatre evening at the Bayou Place itself, where there are several restaurants, ranging from a Hard Rock Cafe (to the best of my knowledge, the closest of any of this company’s restaurants to a major opera house) to much pricier fare. All of the Hard Rock Cafes are little museums of rock memorabilia, and this one has a Gwen Stefani dress on display that would have fit nicely into the Tambosi-Schloessman “Ballo” a block away.

After dinner, at Houston’s latitude there still is daylight in early November to stroll along the walkways from the Bayou Place along the Buffalo Bayou, to the Wortham Center’s George R. Brown Theatre. On this “Ballo” evening, every tree along the walkways was loaded with two species of grackel, the birds that make this part of Houston their home (enough to wonder if all the grackels in the world had congregated on the Buffalo Bayou).