Giuseppe Verdi was more outraged by political censorship while at work on "Un Ballo in Maschera" than at any other time in his career, save for the time around "Rigoletto."
But in his wildest imaginings (he finally agreed to move the action from Sweden to 17th-century Boston), Verdi would never have thought of accepting a setting for his opera that looked exactly like the Conference Room at Colonial Williamsburg. The action also comes complete with British redcoats, since the time has been moved up a century to just before the Revolutionary War. In a word, the Metropolitan Opera production of "Ballo," sung at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Thursday night, is a visual atrocity, played on a stage that is so ferociously raked that chorus entrances look like the finish line of a dangerous downhill footrace.
Nothing has escaped the mayhem. Ulrica's card-reading headquarters, usually agreed to be a den, a hovel or a cave, is the same Conference Room. For further ridiculousness, that scene is populated with several young maidens having diabolical or other seizures, while their Puritan companions try, vainly, to restrain them. May we sook look for "Aida" to be set on the banks of the Chicago River, with the Merchandise Mart in place of pyramids?
Musically, the "Ballo" was, with a single unfortunate exception, up to the high standards set in the Met's three previous offerings. Luciano Pavarotti, an ideal Riccardo, acts with far more appropriate movement and gesture than he is often credited with. His early scherzo eas pure joy, and the later lyrical outpourings were magnificent.
That the set worked against his best-laid plans for concealment in Ulrica's joint was something about which the great tenor could do nothing. In a particularly subtle manner, Pavarotti colored his voice in his dying moments in such a way that it was credible for him to keep on singing for quite a while after being fatally wounded.
Louis Quilico was a sturdy Renato, easy on the highest notes, and making "Eri tu" one of the highlights of the evening. He was matched in vocal richness by the Sam and Tom of Philip Booth and Julien Robbins, with Robbins adding some fine acting touches.
Judith Blegen looks and sounds wonderful in the trouser role of the page, Oscar, making her several scenes musical in the extreme.
Gilda Cruz-Romo sang Amelia as she sings most of her repertoire: some lovely sounds that are rather detached from the rest of her voice, some harsh high notes, and acting that is minimal.
Bianca Berini's Ulrica, the role that suffers most of all from the perversity of the staging, was hard in tone and strangely muted in impact. But it would be difficult to do much in such a weird setting.
The chief hazard of the performance was the conducting of Michelangelo Veltri. Having sounded wonderful for three nights, the orchestra was coarse in the brass and imprecise in attacks. As upsetting were Veltri's erattic tempos, an example of which would be the reprise of the trio for Renato and the conspirators at the end of act two, which was absurdly fast, robbing the whole finale of its rightful impact. That Verdi's great opera did not get the expected thunderous applause at the ends of the acts could be related to the failure of the conductor to make the most of the impressive endings.