Verdi was no stranger to forbidden love and he captured all its passion and anguish in Un Ballo in Maschera, which the Metropolitan Opera returned to the stage last night with a top-flight cast led by Piotr Beczala and Sondra Radvanovsky and with James Levine in the pit for a thrilling performance of one of opera's most dramatic and stirring scores.
The principals for this season's Ballo are the same that sang the premiere of the current production in 2012 with one main exception -- Beczala taking over the role of King Gustavo III of Sweden. And with Levine now conducting the always splendid Met Orchestra, the evening is a musical joy.
The story is a simple one, and one that was based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. In Verdi's opera, King Gustavo is in love with Amelia, the wife of his closest friend and adviser, Count Anckarstrom. She returns his love, but prudence prevails and they refrain from pursuing an affair.
Gustavo is a good, happy-go-lucky king who refuses to believe the Count, a fortune-teller, or his page Oscar when they tell him there is a conspiracy to kill him. But when the Count learns by accident of the secret love between his wife and the king, he joins the plot and ends up stabbing Gustavo at the masked ball of the title.
The current Met production, a David Alden mélange that bears little relationship to the actual story the opera tells, is at best an oddity. A huge scrim with a copy of Merry-Joseph Blondel's "Fall of Icarus" painted on it greets the audience. The same 19th-century work, which is at the Louvre, then appears as a ceiling for the otherwise dull and colorless square box of a set that serves all the scenes in the opera. What the Icarus myth has to do with the assassination of a Swedish king is a mystery.
The costumes, lighting, and quirky stage business -- a group of clerks, for example, who seem to be strangling their own hands, or the crowd at the fortune-teller's den who writhe on the ground like possessed demons -- that accompany each scene might be puzzling if one thought about them. But they are so bizarre, it becomes easy to just ignore them after a while.
Fortunately, the Met cast makes it easy to overlook the directorial self-indulgences and relish the singing and music. Any performance under Levine's baton is one to be remembered, and his reading of Ballo is especially so. There is great communication between pit and stage, and the orchestra and singers are perfectly in sync.
Beczala, who is now one of top tenors on the international circuit, is an ideal fit for the role of Gustavo. He has a strong voice with a clear, ringing timbre that climbs effortlessly to the soaring high notes. And his range, from the flashy Act 1 aria "Di tu, se fedele" to more the pensive "Ma se m'e forza perderti" in the final act, is impressive.
Radvanovsky reprises her stunning performance as Amelia. She has amazing breath control and her phrasing is impeccable. Her rich, robust voice smoothly slides from the lower to the higher register and conveys both the passion and apprehension of her secret love for the king. Her Act III aria "Morro, ma prima in grazia" is heart-rending, and her second act love duet with Beczala is quite simply breathtaking.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky repeats in the role of the Count, and is always a forceful presence on stage. If his voice seemed a bit thin in some passages, his big Act III aria "Eri tu" was delivered with confidence and emotion. Dolora Zajick also returned to give a star cameo turn as Madame Ulrica the fortune-teller. Nobody does gypsies and fortune-tellers like Zajick and her husky voice can still rise to dark heights of ominous foreboding.
Another newcomer to the 2012 cast is the soprano Heidi Stober in the trouser role of Oscar, Gustavo's page. She has a sparkling coloratura vocal quality that is at once bright and perky and self-assured. Stober has sung a Pamina at the Met as well as Gretel in her 2011 debut and is currently a celestial voice in the Met's Don Carlos. One hopes we can hear more from her in the future.