Verdi experts regularly name Un ballo in maschera to be one of his finest works. In spite of this, it’s never reached the heights of popularity of La Traviata or Rigoletto, so a new production by an acclaimed director for a major opera house is a notable event. We watched David Alden’s New York Ballo from the comfort of a London cinema under the Met’s Live in HD series.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato (Count Anckarström) and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III in Verdi's "U
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato (Count Anckarström) and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III in Verdi's "U

Middle period Verdi is highly demanding on its singers: by this stage of his career, Verdi could afford the best and was writing music that was both dramatically intense and laced with bel canto decoration. And whatever your views of the Met, you can't deny that they bring in top quality singers, this Saturday matinee being no exception.

The two male leads were both outstanding. Both Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky showed rock solid technique and richness of timbre, both seeming so effortless in their singing that the music simply poured out of them. Even under the merciless glare of HD close-up shots, neither face seemed strained for a moment. As King Gustavo, Álvarez added delicious devil-may-care rashness; as Renato, Hvorostovsky gave us elegance and authority. At the end of the opera, the roles are reversed as Renato turns to impetuous fury and Gustavo displays genuine nobility. I would travel distance to see both these singers.

The camera served the female leads less well. Sondra Radvanovsky sang the unfortunate Amelia well enough - a touch too much vibrato for me, but that’s a personal taste not shared by everyone - but her face was locked in what Joan Sutherland used to jokingly call a GPE (“general pained expression”). You probably wouldn’t have noticed it from any distance in the auditorium, but the Met video director’s choice of near continuous close-up shots was merciless. As the witch Ulrica, Stephanie Blythe gave a performance that was vocally excellent, but failed to evoke any sense of occult mystery. Kathleen Kim was superb as the page Oscar, her clear coloratura soaring above orchestral and choral wash. With so much vocal talent on show, the trios in Acts I and II were both a joy to hear, strong voices blending immaculately.

David Alden is a director much loved by singers and conductors for his intimate knowledge of every detail of the score, and, with the benefit of his interview on the Met’s site, I can see what this production was trying to achieve. But for two acts out of three, it did little to inspire me. The setting is a fairly indeterminate location in the early twentieth century, with much sartorial elegance. Alden is engaged by the parallel between his hero’s character and that of Icarus, who flies too near the sun in spite of all the warnings given to him, and he lays this on with a trowel, with the stage dominated by a baroque ceiling painting of Icarus (and later, a full scale model), Oscar attired in all white with giant feathered wings, picked out by similar but black wings of dancers at the fatal ball.

For the first two acts, there’s an idea of all the events happening within the closed environment of the same room, which I thought misfired badly. The second half of Act I is supposedly set in the mysterious den of the witch Ulrica, in which our hero is told that he will die by the hand of his best friend. Act II is a tryst in a graveyard under the gallows, surrounded by the ghosts of murderers past. It’s high gothic stuff, and if all the gothic element is to be removed, it seems to me that the effect begs to be replaced by something equally potent. In this production, Ulrica was accompanied by no prop other than a nice black handbag and, eventually, a small skull; the gallows was represented by a single steel girder. It all seemed a bit tame.

Act III was better: the confrontation between Renato and Amelia done in a cleverly angled stage-within-a-stage to gain a sense of intimacy that would be impossible in the full size of the Met’s cavernous stage, while the ball scene was suitably opulent. Act III was attractive to watch and elegant. But overall, I found myself irritated by many details, not least the music hall song-and-dance routine done by Gustavo and Oscar, and by Alden’s decision to switch the character names from colonial Boston to Sweden (the setting of Scribe’s original libretto), which makes a nonsense of the opera’s climax (about how Riccardo/Gustavo has given orders for Renato’s repatriation).

Musically, though, this was a performance to savour. Un ballo in maschera is a marvellous showcase for Verdi’s unique ability to create transcendently beautiful music which is perfectly married to the dramatic action and lavishly daubed with orchestral colour. Whatever my reservations about aspects of the production, the union of Fabio Luisi’s finely judged conducting and such a top class set of singers makes it well worth seeing.