Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sigmund Freud may or may not have actually said that, but the idea transfers neatly to other genres, in this case the Prague National Theatreʼs season-opening production of Un ballo in maschera. This opera is just an opera, with no greater aspirations than lovely melodies strung on a thin plot line presented at a lively, engaging pace. Inasmuch as Balloʼs checkered history in Prague includes versions in German and Czech transplanted to the notorious Boston setting, which was all audiences heard until Verdiʼs Italian original finally premiered in 1993, that alone is an accomplishment.  

Michele Kalmandy (Anckarström) and Veronika Dzhioeva (Amelia) © Patrik Borecký
Michele Kalmandy (Anckarström) and Veronika Dzhioeva (Amelia)
© Patrik Borecký

This time the setting is a handsome but low-budget white box that occupies the entire stage. A mash-up of art deco and Edwardian décor with classical touches, it serves over the course of the evening as the royal court, a gypsy redoubt, eerie outdoor site, bedroom and palace ballroom. Except for the bedroom, created by a backdrop that descends near the front of the stage, the new mise-en-scènes are created mostly by rearranging the furniture and lighting. The costumes run in the same vague turn-of-the-century vein, with formal wear for the chorus and several flamboyant exceptions for the leads. 

The largely monochromatic palette puts the emphasis where it belongs – on the singing – and at the première most of the cast delivered nicely. Russian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva was a tender, tortured Amelia and, as her husband Anckarström, Romanian baritone Michele Kalmandy was the dominant male voice for the entire evening. The two supporting sopranos, both members of the National Theatre company, were superb: with crystalline coloratura and plenty of sly vamping, Marie Fajtová may have been the sexiest Oscar ever to take the stage, while Veronika Hajnová, portraying the gypsy fortune teller (Madame Arvidson in the original Swedish setting), was a menacing black-winged angel with a golden voice.

Veronika Hajnová (Madame Arvidson) © Patrik Borecký
Veronika Hajnová (Madame Arvidson)
© Patrik Borecký

As Gustav, Slovak tenor Michal Lehotský was serviceable but not much more. A few impassioned moments were not enough to invoke what this role demands – that is, a king so enthralled by a forbidden love that he will risk everything for a single embrace. This calls for considerable gravitas, and without it, Gustav comes off as arguably the dumbest character in all of opera, shrugging off every warning of his impending doom, betraying his best friend, willing to give up his kingdom and ultimately his life. Lehotský got better over the course of the evening, but the magic moment when it all made tragic sense never arrived.  

Michal Lehotský (Gustav) © Patrik Borecký
Michal Lehotský (Gustav)
© Patrik Borecký

As if anticipating the lack of emotional credibility, Czech director Dominik Beneš tries to fill the gap with symbols. A moth appears in Act 3, most prominently in place of the kingʼs head in a portrait, suggesting someone irresistibly drawn to a flame. At the concluding ball, large, brightly lit letters spelling out desiderio hover over the masked crowd. Other symbolism is less clear and coherent. Mme Arvidson is costumed like Satanʼs daughter, while Amelia is mostly in virginal white, like a Catholic saint – a powerful contrast with no textual underpinning. Arvidson employs a dressing room makeup mirror to tell fortunes, an odd choice that multiplies until the stage is filled with them, which seems at best a creative use of whatever props were on hand. 

Marie Fajtová (Oscar) and Chorus © Patrik Borecký
Marie Fajtová (Oscar) and Chorus
© Patrik Borecký

For all its flaws, the production has a buoyant spirit and momentum which is irresistible. Beneš keeps his characters in constant motion, and knows how to handle crowds, especially in a raucous party scene that concludes the first act. Jaroslav Kyzlink, former chief conductor and artistic director of the Brno Opera, runs a smart show in the pit, providing generous support for the singers, sharp exclamation points for dramatic moments and perfectly timed pauses for applause after the arias. Judging by the reaction, that was exactly what the audience came for: beautiful songs they could cheer and applaud.

And sometimes, as both Freud and Verdi discovered, thatʼs enough.

***11