Verdi’s Melodramas in Modern Clothes

In successive nights we saw Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Trovatore at the Opera House. Both end badly for the leading characters, both are political melodramas,both have a touch of the occult, and both of these productions have been been transported in time. The Troubadour has been set in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, while The Ball occurs in what could be the present day, though in an imagined society that is hardly Australia. I’ll say nothing further about the acting, singing, orchestral and ensemble work, which were uniformly excellent.

What fascinated me was the re-imagining of each plot to another time and place. Verdi flourished in the mid 19th century, when revolution and civil strife were features of a number of European societies. The original story was based on the actual assassination of a king in Sweden, and was written shortly after the revolution in France in 1830, while Verdi wrote the music not long after a second revolution in France in 1848 which was itself only one of a number of revolts that occurred around Europe at that time.

The director, Alex Olle, felt that we too live in potentially revolutionary times, and has created a set in which the king is more of a president, the court consists of uniformly dressed (though subtly varied) bureaucrats mostly carrying briefcases, and everyone wears masks that seem to give them a similar appearance; the king’s mask is distinctively silver. He is under threat from a group of nobles, is portrayed as a good guy trying to do his best, who secretly loves his best friend’s wife, who secretly loves him, though their passions are undeclared and unconsummated. That will do for the plot.

Now you can translate politics from one society to another with reasonable ease. Julius Caesar works today whether or not you dress everyone in Roman togas or in suits. People being stabbed in the back by their colleagues is a tale familiar even to Australians. But some of the elements of love stories are affected by changing mores. The discovery of the king’s meeting his wife secretly at night, near a gallows, turns the best friend in a moment into the king’s most determined enemy. He condemns his wife for apparent adultery without even asking her what the hell she is doing meeting the king at that spot (both clothed and cloaked), and joins the conspirators.

So in this most modern society, adultery — in this case imagined adultery — has the same shock/horror quality it had at the time of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, about which I wrote some time ago. In my view that possibility is simply at odds with the modernity of the setting. It didn’t work on the night. Nor did the ending. The king is stabbed by the jealous husband at the masked ball that gives the opera its title, but remains alive long enough to declare that the wife is innocent of any wrongdoing and to forgive the conspirators. As he does so a noxious cloud appears in the ballroom and all seem to perish. The only ones standing at the end are three suited figures, not the original conspirators, all wearing gasmasks.

Totally puzzled, I asked the lady to our right what she made of the ending. ‘Well,’ she said,’ I think the king represents order and stability in the society, and when he goes, all is chaos’. Plausible, I thought, and thanked her. On the way out we met some friends  and I asked the same question. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there was a deeper conspiracy, and it was against the whole class of king and courtiers’. Plausible, I thought, and thanked him. I think his explanation is better, but there is no inkling of the deeper conspiracy in the opera that I could remember. What did I miss?

It doesn’t matter where you set La Boheme, or when it is set. Poor students falling in love and falling out again are familiar to us all, and some of us have even been poor students …  But marriage and its rules are different at different times and places. I enjoyed lots about The Ball, but the mismatch of marriage and modernity troubled me.

People sing to their ladies who are up high in inaccessible buildings in a number of operas, like Don Giovanni and The Barber, and I can imagine their doing it even at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Manrico has been doing it successfully in wooing Leonora, which deeply angers the Count, who is having no success. He should have tried singing at her himself, since his arias are at least as good as Manrico’s. Setting the role of a troubador to the side, the Civil War of the 20th century is an appropriate setting for this full-on melodrama, whose sound ranges from ff to fff. The action races along from crisis to crisis, every character is larger than life, and the plot starts with a historic incident that is hard to believe anyway. It’s James Bond to music.

No matter, the music is great. Verdi is 200 this year, and we have a few more of his operas to see before he turns 201. I wonder whether the rest will also have been modernised. I’m not opposed to it at all, but, as with The Ball, it comes with a risk or two.

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