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Met’s ‘Masked Ball’ Is Seductive as Airport Parking Lot

Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Alvarez as Count Anckarstrom and Gustavo III in Verdi's
Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marcelo Alvarez as Count Anckarstrom and Gustavo III in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." Director David Alden is also known for his work on Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa." Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

I expected a lot from David Alden, a director who once turned Tchaikovsky’s “Mazeppa” into a chainsaw massacre.

On Thursday, the American Alden, 63, made his belated debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball).

What a plum assignment. Here’s a richly layered story about politics and passion culminating with the assassination of a king (Gustavus III of Sweden) after several scenes full of grand melodies. There’s a pulsing love duet for tenor and soprano, several fine arias and a long, long death scene in which the king forgives everyone for his murder.

The historic king actually had his assassin tortured for three days, then decapitated. Imagine what Alden could have done with that! As it was, the show proved curiously undramatic.

In the past, Met directors have set “Ballo” in 18th century Sweden or moved the show to New England, which is where censors initially displaced Verdi’s opera at the opening night in 1859.

Alden’s production, with sets by Paul Steinberg, also making his Met debut, is a blend of hyper-modern and ornate, like the lobby of a Philippe Starck hotel.

A sizable painting of Icarus falling to earth dominates the show beginning with the opening scene, which finds the king seated in a leather club chair. There’s a touch of Weimar -- and also Jil Sander -- in the costumes, though I am not sure just what the story has to do with Germany or with Icarus for that matter.

Brooding Malevolence

Still, the expressionistic side lighting added a suitable air of brooding malevolence.

As Gustavo, tenor Marcelo Alvarez wore a jacket and slacks reminiscent of a 19th century banker and cavorted through his scenes with his page Oscar. The jolliness was undercut by Kathleen Kim, who sounded wanly underpowered as she stumbled around in a white tuxedo and heels.

I hoped the fortune teller would bring good news to this production, but this was not to be. All we got was Dolora Zajick blasting her way through one of her well-worn crazy roles. At least she had a flask.

Later, Gustavo and his love Amelia met in what could pass for a parking lot at an airport Hilton. The libretto calls for a gallows, which Alden evoked with a jagged I-beam.

Long Walk

After standing on opposite sides of the stage for what seemed like an eternity, the two walked carefully toward each other. Was this in any way sexy?

Sondra Radvanovsky had the vocal goods, though her tone lacked lushness.

That leaves baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as her husband Renato or Anckarstrom, who did get to wrestle with his wife in a rare moment of action. He brought anguish to “Eri tu,” and of course looked dashing in his gray suit and tie.

Fabio Luisi was on the podium, picking up speed after the first half. What a frustrating night, right until the end when Anckarstrom stabbed Gustavo at the masked ball. Gustavo fell, got up, strolled around a bit, then dropped again for his last addio.

The curtain calls brought cheers for the singers and a mixed reception for Alden.

Runs through Dec. 14 at Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-6000;

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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