Belle of the Masked Ball — ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ and the Met’s Continuing Cover Crisis (Conclusion)

Gustavo's death scene, Act III, of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (Beth Bergman)

Gustavo’s death scene, Act III, of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (Beth Bergman)

Lost in Translation

When last we left the Metropolitan Opera radio season, which for me culminated on May 2 with the broadcast of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), the company had to face yet another of those infuriatingly abrupt cast substitutions. While the April 24th revival of its controversial David Alden production of Ballo had been headlined by the strikingly stylish Piotr Beczala as Gustavo, the Saturday transmission a week later brought Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura back to the airwaves. Yes, dear friends, Mr. Beczala took sick and our stalwart champion of lost causes, Senhor Tamura, stepped in once again to enter the fray.

Tamura’s earlier understudy of Don Carlo in the opera of the same name, reviewed here on August 1 (see the following link:, was not, to put it bluntly, the “big break” one might have expected given the eleventh-hour nature of the circumstances. However, as indicated in my initial post, I determined to give Tamura another shot at shining in a part that would showcase his not inconsiderable talents.

With that out of the way, let’s say that the odds were stacked against him. Trying to follow in Beczala’s footsteps is, by any rationale, an act of bravery if not downright lunacy. Beczala had received glowing reviews from the press for his lyrically adept portrayal of King Gustav III and his ill-fated passion for Amelia. Drawing comparisons with famed Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, one of the Met’s brightest and dearest lights from the 1940s and ‘50s, Beczala superbly transcended director Alden’s sometimes awkward staging, as well as sidestepped the geometrically intricate patterns weaved by set-maker Paul Steinberg, to give a delicately nuanced, emotionally satisfying and vocally thrilling performance. Still, one held out hope that Tamura could hold his own against the competition.

Before I get to the singing, I have a few words to say about the staging: this was one more in a long line of tiresome modern reconfigurations that have enveloped the Met Opera world of late. Mind you, I am not opposed to innovation for innovation’s sake, nor am I adverse to a strict traditionalist viewpoint either. I do like to see some thought behind a director’s concept. I also like for directors and producers to provide a clearer focus and motivational impetus for why they are interpreting a piece in the way they are interpreting it. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

Gustavo (Piotr Beczala) & Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) in Un Ballo in Maschera (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Gustavo (Piotr Beczala) & Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) in Un Ballo in Maschera (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

But in this production, we’ll need to take the good with the bad. And there were plenty of good things in it to soothe the most savage of beasts in all of us. I was particularly taken by a massive painting of the mythological figure Icarus, which loomed large over each of the succeeding acts as this production’s main motif: Gustavo, whose devil-may-care frivolity gets him into all kinds of illicit activity, skirts too close to the sun for comfort. He gets knocked down. Well, let’s just spell it out, shall we: Gustavo is killed for taking one too many liberties with his best friend’s wife, the lovely Amelia. His chief advisor, Count Anckarström, who happens to be married to Amelia, swears vengeance on the king by conspiring with the plotters Horn and Ribbing to assassinate him at a masked ball.

Wow! Talk about jealousy, that’s basically the plot of Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece Otello, with a few modulations, of course. And the music of Un Ballo in Maschera constantly reflects that coming storm of a work, as well as the tempest that permeates the opera Don Carlo. For instance, take the last scene of Ballo, where the courtiers are dressed all in black, their faces covered by matching black masks, surely one of the most potent examples of operatic irony that Verdi was capable of conceiving. Count Anckarström stands out by virtue of his purplish outfit, purple being the color of royalty or nobility, therefore “ironic” in the sense that the fellow with the “noblest” of intentions is the one who actually murders the king.

As the dying monarch gasps out his last words (“Addio, miei figli” — “Farewell, my children”), forgiving those who perpetrated the crime upon his person, the violins have played a mournful theme high up in the strings’ register which listeners might find reminiscent of Rodrigo’s air, “O Carlo, ascolta,” in the death scene from Don Carlo. The prevailingly black, white and gray color scheme (by costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel) all-but washes out any sense of vibrancy. Ah, but that vibrancy comes chiefly from the singing, which on this occasion mostly lived up to the previous standard set when this production was new.

Something to Rave About

Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

The chief architects of this revival were, in order of vocal excellence, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as his wife Amelia, soprano Heidi Stober as the page Oscar, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as the sorceress Ulrica, basses David Crawford and Keith Miller as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, baritone Trevor Scheunemann as the sailor Cristiano (or Silvano in the so-called “Boston” setting of the piece), and tenor Mark Schowalter as the Judge. The conductor on this occasion was the returning James Levine, always a commanding presence on the podium.

All were fine, with particular praise going to Hvorostovsky’s “Eri tu?” from Act III, his long-lined legato phrasing lovingly displayed in a riveting, tour de force performance unequalled in strength and breath control; and, of course, to the belle of the masked ball, the stunning Ms. Radvanovsky, whose pristine “Morrò ma prima in grazia,” her heartbreaking farewell to her little son, moved the audience to cheers and shouts of “brava, diva.” Now there was something to rave about!

Maestro Levine surely loves this score as much as anything else in Verdi, although his tentative touches in the opera’s introduction slowly but surely caught up with the rest of his exemplary paced output later on. Heidi Stober’s tomboyish Oscar (in top hat and cane, of all things!) and Dolora Zajick’s voluminous Ulrica filled out their roles to perfection, as did the sinister duo of Crawford and Miller as the booming bassos of the piece.

As for Tamura’s spur-of-the-moment contribution, let’s say that Pavarotti he is not. Beczala he is not. Not even Marcelo Álvarez, who brought a wonderfully crisp, bel canto-esque elegance to Gustavo at this production’s premiere. Tamura, at this stage in his career, for better or for worse, is a pleasant, workmanlike artist who gives his all, albeit one who has yet to develop a distinct vocal personality, or a definable stamp of presenting a dynamic characterization of one of opera’s most individually multi-hued personae.

Time and experience, along with constant exposure to artists of the caliber of those mentioned above, will likely alter and shape Tamura’s view of this and other Verdi parts into a transformative whole.

Tenor Ricardo Tamura

Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura

Tamura did gain in strength and confidence as the opera progressed, even though he ducked the optional high C at the conclusion of his Act II love duet with Amelia (to be fair, though, most tenors tend to bypass the top note, one that Verdi never wrote but that tradition dictates be taken anyway). By the time he got to his show-stopping last act aria, “Ma se me forza perderti,” Tamura even managed to kindle some tenderness and involvement in the drama.

You may have noticed that I am being hesitant in negatively criticizing the tenor in my typically “forthright” manner. Again, I must emphasize that Ricardo Tamura was literally shoved onto the spotlight as a surrogate performer, and for the second time on radio and on short notice. The other participants are all veterans of this production, ergo they’ve each had sufficient rehearsal time to find their marks and ease into their characters — much more so than the lead.

I am giving the devil his due here, and allowing for extenuating circumstances to temper my feelings about an obviously gifted performer, one with a promising future in opera. It’s not every day that young artists can be heard nationally (or internationally) over the public airwaves. Consequently, it is my fervent wish that Tamura will take full advantage of the opportunity awarded him — one less fortunate singers would give their right arms for.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lost Navigator: Michael Richards — A Story of Redemption through Art

Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)

Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)

The clock-radio went off at 7:45 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, a radiantly sunlit Tuesday in New York. Instead of being greeted by the usual reggae beat, a distant, far-away psalm in Latin verse came over the airwaves — softly at first, then stronger and more assured. Women’s voices predominated, followed by the men; an eerie sort of sound not much different from Gregorian chant that reverberated in a church-like atmosphere. It forced Michael Richards to pry open his eyes.

“Oh, Geez,” he muttered sleepily to himself, “what the heck is this?” Michael rolled over in his cot, a simple makeshift bed he’d been using with increasing frequency, while he stayed up till the “wee, small hours,” a close friend would say, working diligently on his art projects.

Despite being startled by the sound, the music was vaguely familiar, except that Michael had a hard time placing it. He decided to leave the radio on for the moment. It took some time for him to shake off the effects of the previous night’s indulgence. He had gone to bed late, long past midnight; it must have been two or three in the morning. No matter, Michael had to be up by 8:00 and on his way to the Bronx by 8:45. The subway ride from lower Manhattan took about an hour and twenty minutes on a good day, but it was less of a hassle than if he had made the trip from his home in Rosedale. Besides, he didn’t want to be late for work.

Work? Man, he thought, it wasn’t work at all. Not to him anyway. He loved his job at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Michael was an assistant art laborer, sort of a go-to guy and artistic jack-of-all-trades. “Yeah, and master of none,” another wise-ass buddy once remarked.

bronx museum of the arts

“Hah, you’re probably right,” Michael would snap back, in that deliberately calm, non-confrontational style of his. He didn’t want to offend his pal, whom he had known since their Miami South Beach fellowship days. What’s the sense of it? He’d only seen him, what, three, maybe four times a day. Each and every day! “Why make enemies when you can keep the mutual admiration society going?” he reasoned. Good point.

“Damn! Why can’t I remember this tune?” There was something ethereal and slightly other-worldly about it. “Is this what they call an out-of-body experience?” he wondered aloud. Moving in for a closer look, Michael noticed the radio wasn’t tuned to his favorite station.

“Yo, who’s been messing with my dial?” The call numbers read 96.3. This was WQXR-FM, a classical-music station. “Ah, right,” he remembered, with a look of bemusement. “Maybe Jeffy had something to do with that.” Michael was referring to a fellow artist named Jeff, his studio neighbor and a die-hard football fanatic. The two of them had stayed up past their normal hour to watch Monday Night Football, which featured the season opener between the Giants and the Broncos at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The Giants lost 31-20, a real heartbreaker.

Among other styles of music, Michael knew that Jeff liked classical. Michael, too, had wide-ranging tastes, but classical? A little gospel and blues perhaps, and, of course, lots and lots of reggae, a love of which he acquired while growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Although Michael was born in Brooklyn — on August 2, 1963 — his father was a Jamaican by birth, one who had strong views about where his son should be brought up. His mother, a native of Costa Rica, had other ideas. Michael’s decision to become an artist and dedicate his life to art had initially been met with resistance by family members. Still, that did not stop him from pursuing his goal.

“Can’t dwell on that now,” he commented. “I got to get going!” With that, he turned off the radio, got up from the cot and went to the bathroom.

As he turned on the shower, Michael’s thoughts turned back to sports. It had rained the night before. “Man, it poured,” he added for emphasis. A passing thunderstorm that started before 7 p.m. blanketed the skyline with threatening clouds. Heavy showers dumped nearly half an inch of rain onto Yankee Stadium, leaving a water-logged playing field in its wake. As a result, the game between the Bronx Bombers and the Oakland A’s, originally scheduled for later in the evening, had been scrapped. Michael was fond of baseball, but with the Yankee game cancelled football seemed the better option. Jeff thought so, too.

In as much as they both loved watching sports on television, Michael’s real passion was for sculpture. He’d often work through the night on a piece, sometimes into the next morning — shaping it, defining it, tweaking it with his tools and hands, until in his gut he felt it was just right. “That Goldilocks thingee in the belly.”

Monday, September 10, had been an especially long day for him. He had come to the studio, located on the 92nd floor of Tower One (also known as the North Tower) of the World Trade Center, after having first attended a late afternoon opening at the Grey Art Gallery where he used to work, near New York University in Washington Square Park.

Returning from the gallery, Michael kept to his habit of working out in the gym, sculpting his solid six-foot-something frame into fighting shape. Grunting and groaning, lifting multi-pound weights, working those thigh muscles, flexing his arms, calves and legs, and using the treadmill. He did this for the simplest of reasons: he needed his body in tip-top condition for his projects.

Why else would he, or anyone else for that matter, have subjected themselves to such torture? By covering himself with plaster resin and casting his own muscular build, Michael could put his time and effort to good use, as well as imprint his likeness on every piece he turned out — not unlike the carvings and statues of ancient kings and pharaohs.

Only, instead of relying on slaves to build 40-story-high tombs, Michael could depend on his colleagues and fellow artisans for help with the painstaking process. He worked patiently and methodically. Once the molding and casting were done Michael could manipulate the plaster resin to his desired purpose. In the age of advanced technology, his output was decidedly low-tech: therein lay its appeal.

Michael Richards & Friends

Michael Richards & Friends

On occasion, he would demonstrate the labor-intensive process in person to his girlfriend, now his fiancée, Christie. She would stand there and gaze at him, admiringly, seeing how much he enjoyed the results of his labor. Keeping her in his mind as well as in his heart, Michael called Christie on his cell phone just after the football game had ended, to let her know he was still at work.

“Michael, it’s midnight,” she reminded him. “When can I see you?”

“Tomorrow, sweetie. I should be free by tomorrow, okay?”

Jeff, Vanessa, Monika, and the other 22 artists in the World Views program run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council — the entity that provided windowed studio space in Tower One — were also privy to Michael’s working habits and methods, in particular his obsession with flight imagery.

It was an obsession that started about a decade ago. As a young black man, albeit one of distinctly Caribbean ancestry, living and working in the America of the new millennium, Michael took “the idea of flight” not only as it relates to his subsequent “use of pilots and planes, but” its references to “the black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place — to a better world,” as he explained it.

One of his earliest representations, from 1997, depicts a World War II Tuskegee airman in flight suit, helmet and parachute. The eyes are closed, the body rigid and erect, with the hands flat against his side. Nails perforate the figure from the neck down to the lower abdomen and upper thighs. With the left leg bent slightly inward, it’s an obvious pharaonic pose preserved in fiberglass and resin with elements of iron oxide. A study for future events to come, but Michael didn’t know that at the time.

Michael’s continued use of “pilots and planes,” i.e., the famed all-black and segregated Tuskegee air squadron, came to full fruition in his 2000 creation for the Franconia Sculpture Park, near the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota. He titled it Are You Down? Originally made of glass fiber and resin, but recast in bronze in 2012 as part of a preservation project, this piece is a tableau of three downed air pilots positioned triangularly across from and with their backs to one another. Again, Michael was the model for each of the airmen.

Are You Down? (Photo: Jason DeMoe)

Are You Down? at Franconia Sculpture Park (Photo: Jason DeMoe)

In the middle of the structure is a large bulls-eye target which the figures have missed. The faces on the three airmen are downcast and looking at the ground. According to writer, artist, designer and long-time Twin Cities resident Glenn Gordon, “They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.”

A variation on this theme found its culmination in one of Michael’s last surviving works. Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian is a bronze sculpture made in 1999 of a lone Tuskegee airman. True to form, the sculpture was cast from life, that is, from his own form. In this instance, the airman is portrayed as the early Christian martyr St. Sebastian. But instead of the figure being pierced by multiple arrows, the artist, who is dressed once more in flight gear and accompanying helmet, is impaled by a swarm of model airplanes.

Like his prior 1997 piece, Michael’s eyes are shut tight. But unlike that statue’s severe countenance, or the downed air pilots in Franconia, the face is tranquil and relaxed, the chin raised imperceptibly to the sky, the hands placed with their palms up in the manner of a supplicant. His feet (covered by army boots), and indeed his entire body, are lifted off the ground by several inches. The structure is supported by a steel shaft, with the planes attached by steel bolts. The impression one receives is that of the pilot (or, if you will, Michael himself) ascending into heaven.

Michael recalled the artist’s statement he had composed back when Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian was completed — the statement he never had the chance to submit before his statue was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem: “The Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home.”

Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)

Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)

Stepping out of the shower, Michael dried himself off and got dressed in a spiffy black outfit. “Say it loud,” he’d shout back at his reflection in the mirror, “I’m all in black and I’m oh-so proud.” He mused on his accomplishments to date, and was indeed proud of the fact that he was an artist-in-residence at several New York studios and museums; that he had had several gallery showings under his belt, among them the Chicago Cultural Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the aforementioned Studio Museum of Harlem, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Even more than these, he was glad to have been able to address such personal issues as social injustice, discrimination, the lack of opportunity, racial intolerance and unfairness through his art. “I’m a credit to my race — the human race!” he pointed out half jokingly, in a paraphrase of sports journalist Jimmy Cannon’s famous observation about the boxer Joe Louis.

Looking at his watch, he still had a few minutes to think about his mounting workload. One he had been spending a good deal of time on had to do with a man riding a meteor. Another was a life-sized recreation of his own torso with wings on its back. One of the wings was supposed to be broken off. He called this piece Fallen Angel. Michael gave out a little chuckle at that title. “Lucifer, you little devil, you’re the fallen angel!”

Time was getting short. Michael had to step on it if he was going to catch the subway train to the Bronx. Out of the blue, he found that he remembered the title of the choral music that had awakened him that morning. It was Adagio for Strings, sung by mixed choir in an arrangement by its composer, Samuel Barber. The words, based on the Latin text for “Lamb of God,” were part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church:

Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Miserere nobis


Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Dona nobis pacem


Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Have mercy on us


Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Grant us peace


This was something his Catholic friends would repeat when, on the rare occasion that Michael was invited to attend Mass, he would hear the priest speak these words from the altar: “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the lamb.” And the congregation would respond in turn: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Even though he did not take communion, Michael invariably felt better afterwards. He especially looked forward to the sign of peace where the parishioners would shake hands with one another.

“Peace be with you,” they would whisper to him. “And also with you,” he’d answer back.

It was 8:45 a.m., almost time to go. Michael had just enough time to turn on the TV and hear the latest weather forecast, along with a summary of the previous day’s events. Satisfied with the news, he turned off the set. Just then, he heard the ear-shattering noise of a jet engine, an unmistakable sound for someone, like himself, so attuned to aeronautics. In the next instant, an airplane crashed into Tower One between the 93rd and 99th floors. The time was 8:46 and thirty seconds.

Repeated calls to Michael’s cell phone went unanswered. In fact, no one’s cell phone was working properly that day, or the day after.

*              *              *

Michael Richards perished on the morning of September 11, 2001. He was 38 years and one month old. He was working in his studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center Tower One, on the side facing the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, Michael was entombed with his work in a 110-story structure, a tower taller than any pyramid or obelisk from the ancient or modern world.

At exactly that same moment, fellow World Views artist Vanessa Lawrence had stepped off the 91st floor elevator when she felt the whole building shake. She headed for the stairs, making her way through smoke, debris and water. Eventually leaving the building, she saw that Tower Two had collapsed next door.

The above story is a fictionalized account of the events on and before the day of Michael’s passing. Though much of the dialogue has been recreated and dramatized, the events as they occurred are based on the written record and on eyewitness accounts of those who knew the artist personally.

Linda Johnson Dougherty, chief curator and curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was co-curator of the Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight Exhibit held in Raleigh from November 2, 2003 to March 7, 2004, as part of the Centennial of Flight Show honoring the Wright Brothers. It was during this exhibition that I first laid eyes on Michael Richard’s achievement, the mesmerizing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Needless to say, I was both stunned and immensely impressed by the figure.

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length photo (NC Museum of Art)

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length shot (NC Museum of Art)

But how did this particular piece become a part of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection? Linda explained that the sculpture was a long sought-after item, but that it had not been among the artist’s work at the time of his death. Later, the museum learned that it was found stored inside a family member’s garage (that of a cousin who lived outside the city, in Mount Vernon). The family had given it to the museum as part of a long-term loan. It’s an incredibly moving and poignant piece, hugely significant and impressively displayed. The work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, to those who died on 9/11.

Out of intuition and my own curiosity about the artist’s thought processes and mind-set, I asked Linda if she felt Michael may have had a premonition of his own death. “No, of course not,” Linda insisted. “How could anyone know that? It would be impossible.” Indeed, one of the many ironic coincidences of Michael Richards’ life was how his art transcended his manner of death.

In a reference to this piece, Michael’s art dealer, Genaro Ambrosino, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying, “Although it was about death, it was more about liberation, freedom, being able to escape. It was a sad message because of what it meant historically … It was like redemption from all that.”  

This lost navigator sought and found his home, a spiritual port of call. For it is only through Him, the above-named Lamb of God, that we can be redeemed.

When asked by a friend what he wanted out of life, Michael made this telling connection: “I want to live hard. I want to love hard. I want to work hard, and then I want to die.”

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes