Image borrowed from

Image borrowed from

I was just looking back through my diary, and realised this is the first pre- 20th century opera I’ve bought a ticket for in some time, which did in fact make a pleasant change. From what I’ve heard so far I personally find Verdi rather variable in quality; great in some parts (for example, most of Don Carlo) and weak in others (a lot of Macbeth), and this one was on the better side, with some really excellent scenes. Unfortunately it was let down rather by the production, which was for the most part uninspired. The scenes chez Riccardo consisted of a few chairs, maybe a table, and much the same at Renato and Amelia’s place, with the ‘poignant’ addition of a small child’s rocking horse. When the court went to visit the witch Ulrica, she appeared to be sitting on a small raft in the middle of a badly-maintained prison, complete with three levels of prisoners, I mean chorus, peering at her through the wire mesh. The graveyard scene was simply not spooky, despite the large gibbet in the middle of the stage; it looked more like a rubbish dump and was far too bright for midnight. The one setting that really did work very well was the masked ball itself, with a very effective use of large mirrors giving a kind of split-screen effect between the action in the foreground, another ‘offstage’ room, and sometimes reflections of the orchestra and audience. It was a fantastic visual effect and quite disorientating, really adding to the feeling of unease already created by our knowledge of the planned assassination. However, it just wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the production. Costumes were nothing worth mentioning, although I was intrigued by the large number of people at the ball wearing pierrot outfits.

I was keen to hear both Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato), who I had seen on TV but never heard live, and Nina Stemme (Amelia), who I had never heard sing, but who has been much talked about recently. I was not disappointed. Hvorostovsky’s voice was rich, strong and expressive, particularly in his wonderful aria in Act 3. It would have been even better if his acting had had some expression too (unless, of course, it was a conscious interpretative decision to play the character as a robot), but one can’t have everything. In fact, there was quite an odd dissociation between what one heard (great singing, full of passion) and what one saw (stiff reserve, with little in the way of emotional display either when chastising his presumed unfaithful wife or murdering his ex- best friend). But as I said, perhaps that was his interpretation. Nina Stemme was the most convincingly acted of the main characters, and also sang exquisitely. She tempered a strong rich sound (through the whole range of pitch and volume) with delicately expressive phrasing, showing an ability to effortlessly cut across the whole chorus, and in the quieter passages to hold the audience glued to every note. I’ve heard her tipped as the next great Wagnerian soprano, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m looking forward to it.

As for the rest of the cast… I really can’t think of much to say about Giuseppe Gipali as Riccardo. His voice was pleasant enough, but for the first two acts I wished I had a volume knob to turn up. He gave it a little more welly in the third act, but was still outsung by pretty much everyone else on stage. He was also rather of the ‘automaton’ style of acting and completely unconvincing as a lover of Amelia. He clutched his abdomen a bit after being fatally stabbed, but more as if he had a touch of tummy ache, and sat down in his chair to die (presumably in a kind of mirror of the opening scene, where he is slumped asleep in the same chair in the same position). Patrizia Biccire displayed the most energy, making the most she could of page boy Oscar, which she also sang very well. I’ve left the best until last, though. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe absolutely blew me away as Ulrica. Her voice was huge and resonant, with a dark tone more often associated with basses. As a particular fan of deep voices it was the lower-pitched passages that really affected me, but she could also comfortably soar into the upper registers when required. Although (as my companion Faye remarked) she seemed to be dressed as a Norn rather than a gypsy, she had great stage presence; she also sang most of the part while hunched over to one side or bent over, hobbling with her stick, so I can only imagine what she’d sound like standing upright. The only unfortunate thing about her performance was how watery the poor tenor sounded in comparison. Judging by the applause she got when she took her bow after Act 1, I’m guessing most of the audience felt the same way as me. The chorus, like the main characters, seemed to have little idea of what they were supposed to be doing while on stage and shuffled around in a rather am-dram way, but they sounded fine and sung with precision and clarity.

I need to mention the orchestra, who were on excellent form under the authoritative baton and clear conceptual vision of Charles Mackerras. Apart from a moment of very dodgy tuning from the oboe section, everything seemed to be spot on (although as I don’t know the score well someone might correct me on that). Musicians can’t help picking out their own instrument when listening to an orchestra, and so I couldn’t help noticing that there was quite a big piccolo part, with some prominent passages. So I also noticed that it was being played extremely well, with a lovely tone and great care taken over expressive phrasing and balancing of dynamics within the ensemble. I don’t have a programme to check the chap’s name, but if anyone reading this does, could they please let me know, as I think I should drop him an email to say how much I liked it.

Ok, that ‘s the serious review over. So… while musing on how little passion there seemed to be between the ‘lovers’ Riccardo and Amelia, and how ambivalent Renato (husband of Amelia, best mate of Riccardo) seemed to be about it, I hit upon an alternative interpretation of the story, or rather, a homoerotic subtext for the story. See, it’s all about the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ between Riccardo and Renato. Renato doesn’t really love Amelia at all – he only married her because it was society’s expectation, and he needed a receptacle to produce him heirs. It’s really Riccardo, his beloved Count, that he’s in love with, but he has never yet dared to act on his feelings, instead subsuming them in the friendship that he believes is all he can hope for. He’s not particularly bothered about his wife betraying him, although it hurts his manly pride a little; what wounds him is that his beloved Count has (apparently) been having an affair with a member of the disgusting female sex, dashing his own hopes of manly love for good, and the fact that he has shown so little consideration for their friendship as to take Renato’s own wife as lover is the last straw. Meanwhile, Riccardo may be playing suit to Amelia, but it’s plain his heart really isn’t in it. The fact is, he is unaware of his own latent homosexuality, and so has not consciously realised his love for Renato; hence he is attracted to Amelia ‘by proxy’ as the closest he can get to Renato himself. As with many stories of tragic misunderstanding, the awful consequences could have been averted if only they’d been able to say how they really felt…

Perhaps someone’ll do a production of it that way some day. Or have they already?