12/03/2012 02:32 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

The Case for Obstructed-View Seats

Last Saturday, November 24, I attended a matinee of La Clemenza di Tito, but, alas, from my seat I could see almost nothing of the stage. Although the singing was stellar -- in addition to the always glorious singing of Elina Garanča as Sesto, there was the equally beautiful singing of Kate Lindsey as Annio and Lucy Crowe as Servilia, and Giuseppe Filianoti surprised one by singing a perfectly lovely Tito -- it was as if I were listening to an expensive radio broadcast. I almost wish that had been the case Friday night, November 30, with Un Ballo in Maschera.

I tweeted at the end I had never seen Ballo before, and I still felt like I hadn't. I have written before my feelings about updated or "concept" productions of common practice era operas. In a nutshell, such productions usually aim to make social and political roles and relationships more clear, but rarely do, and more often than not distract from the very details they intend to highlight by their attention -- or worse, inattention -- to detail. In David Alden's production, Ballo is set in Sweden, as M. Eugène Scribe's original libretto dictated (before the Neapolitan censors got their hands on it in 1859), but in the early 20th century rather than the late 18th century. It could have been Europe between the wars. There were German-style military uniforms. We have seen those grey morning suits and darks suits with bowlers on the gentlemen, cast and chorus so often in recent years that one wonders if some extremely lucrative deal has been struck between the Met and a formalwear distributor.

A very important part of the confusing scenery was a large painting of Icarus. An uncredited program article about the production compares the fate of Icarus, when the joy of flight caused him to ignore his father's warnings to stay away from the sun, for his wings were made of wax, to Gustavo/Riccardo's hedonistic plight. I'm not buying it. Icarus and his Dad-alus were fleeing Crete, not out for a joy ride. I don't quite understand why Oskar (well sung by Kathleen Kim) is wearing the wings, both at beginning and end. Is he supposed to be a little Gustavo?

As I have said in other reviews, it's really hard to ruin Verdi for me, try as you might. The Met principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, led a quite lovely performance, both vocally and musically. Ensembles were well-paced and tight, and of course the Met orchestra and chorus met their usual high standard.

Gustavo/Riccardo seems to me to be very similar to the Duke in Rigoletto. He's out for pleasure. He thinks he feels love for some of the women he goes after, but he doesn't really. Gustavo was sung by Marcelo Álvarez, and I must say he sang much more beautifully than I expected. The current crop of Verdi tenors at the Met tends to bark a lot, but perhaps the nature of the role brought out lyricism in Mr. Álvarez I haven't heard before. Reading of his roots in bel canto, one sees the connection. I wrote of his Trovatore Manrico in April of last year that he wasn't terribly subtle, but he was effective. In this performance, I heard more subtlety and many beautiful sounds. Although his top is where he sometimes loses the subtlety, he keeps the ring and it's still a beautiful sound. And he did seem to portray a number of Gustavo's many sides, from his passion to his conflicted feelings over betraying his best friend and advisor. Perhaps I blinked, but I didn't see very much of the sense of fun Mr. Alden suggests should be part of Gustavo's character.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the reigning Verdi baritone at the Met nowadays. He's quite handsome, he sings well and he knows his repertoire. But, I can't think it's coincidence that it was during his scenes as Renato (I'm sorry, but I am not going to the trouble of typing Angkarström every time) that the weariness of the day found the evening's least resistance from excitement and passion. Having said that, I will say that he, like everyone else in the cast, was on fire in the last act. Renato's Act IV aria "Eri tu" brought my opera-going companion to tears. Considering my friend's wealth of knowledge and experience is easily twice my own, I take that as very high praise indeed of Mr. Hvorostovsky's performance.

Sandra Radvanovsky. I have stated publicly I'm not a big fan of hers, and my opinion hasn't changed. However, having on Friday evening much better seats than I'm accustomed to, I could see some of the passion that thrills audiences so. I still find her singing a little harsh at times, particularly in the upper-middle voice. (What I call the straits of hell in my own feeble attempts to sing.) I know this is ungentlemanly to say, but to me she doesn't sound like a first-string soprano. I don't consider her the equal of Álvarez and Hvorostovsky. Still, there were moments of beauty, and one believed her as Amelia.

The real wonder of the cast was Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica. (Ms. Blythe alternates in the role with Dolora Zajick.) Mr. Alden made it look like Ulrica had set up shop in a train station, but Ms. Blythe nonetheless gave a stellar vocal and dramatic performance, as one always expects from her. The woman's range in acting and vocal styles is simply amazing. (Honestly, have you seen her videos as Isabella in L'Italiana?) While the other singers earned the ovations they were given at curtain, it was only Ms. Blythe who got a "Brava!" from me. (I would also add that traditional curtain calls at the end of every act would have allowed Ms. Blythe to go home a few hours earlier.)

My overall impressions of the evening? Verdi sure knew what he was doing, didn't he?! For any opera to defy the Met's attempts at complete destruction and yet allow me to leave humming its beautiful melodies instead of fuming about the production is remarkable. I left thinking, "I should pull out that score and look at it!" rather than, "Make it stop! Make it stop!"