Ulrica almost always makes an impression; she represents one of the handful of contralto roles in the Verdi literature. But Stephanie Blythe had to bring her own magic; this David Alden Met production, transmitted Live-in-HD, erased the supernatural in the opera; replacing it with dreamspeak.
The Ulrica scene in act one is an instance of how messing with superstition can make prophesy become real. The disguised King Gustavo is entertained by the fortune telling; but in deciding to follow Amelia while she in turn follows Ulrica's instructions in Act II, the prophecy of Gustavo's death at the hands of a friend becomes inevitable.
"Do you think Verdi wants us to think Ulrica is for real," Deborah Voigt asked Blythe in the intermission after act one, "or is she a bit of a con artist?"
"Both," replied Blythe. The role was based on a real historical person. "Madame Arvidsson had quite a collection of friends in the palace who gave her a lot of information," said Blythe. "This prophecy came true and it destroyed her [as well]. After this [prophecy] came true no one would come to see her again." Blythe stated that if Ulrica had any sense of the future she would have known in advance that this event would become her own ruin, and yet that ruin would not be part of the story.
Blythe dug deeply into the text and twisted and curved every color in its diction. She made the juxtapostions of style whenever her music sounded seem as magical as the spells she cast.
Yet the sense of magic, both in the Ulrica scene and later in the graveyard, did not come across in the production and that was a loss. It took time to become accustomed to Alden's concept of this set--which was minimal and frequently contained. The sound even changed in HD; there was an unusual after-ringing in the voices that sounded like reverb.
And there was too much Icarus. The connection was worth a go, but the image became like watching an old "Swan Song" Led Zeppelin record spin on a turntable.
The production did focus attention on the singing; and the cast was incredible. Sondra Radvanovsky sang fire, and had chemistry with both Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The chorus sounded huge and Alden moved them in clever ways.
The third act opened in a claustrophobic black and white space with slanted ceiling. The second scene brought huge mirrors and well-placed projections. In a prerecorded interview between Gelb and Alden, Alden reminded us that Verdi often wrote about kings, politics and rulers. "[But this opera," said Alden, "is about a king who doesn't want to be a king anymore, who wants to escape from his responsibilities, who wants to throw himself into one dangerous adventure after another as if he is looking for death."
"Act III is where the whole story explodes," said Alden, "it becomes impossible to tell where the boundaries are." The surrealistic final scene amplified King Gustavo's deathwish. It focused the lurid and decayed progress of the opera and created its own kinda magic. It required patience but it delivered.