Having a ball with Verdi

Director Michal Znaniecki talks about the Israel Opera’s new production of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera.’

Un Ballo in Maschera (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Un Ballo in Maschera
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
There are probably more than a handful of people out there who view opera as a fanciful, overtly grandiose, escapist art form. That may or may not be so but, according to Michal Znaniecki, there can be some very real, contemporary messages in there, too.
The Polish-born, Argentinean-resident director is currently in Tel Aviv, hard at work preparing for the upcoming run of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. All told, there are 11 performances lined up at the Israeli Opera House from February 7-22, with Daniel Oren on the conductor’s podium, and a whole host of stellar vocalists, including Argentinean tenor Gustavo Porta, Russian-born soprano Irina Moreva, Romanian-born baritone Ionut Pascu, and Russian mezzo soprano Agunda Kulaeva. 
Znaniecki will enjoy the services of longtime operatic sparring partner and Italian set designer Luigi Scoglio, Polish costume designer Joanna Medynska, and compatriot lighting designer Bugomil Palewicz. All three have worked with the Polish director for some time, and all were on board for Znaniecki’s previous production of Un ballo in maschera in Tel Aviv in 2014, all of which makes for a comfortable professional nip-and-tuck working scenario.
I wondered whether Znaniecki was going about the forthcoming production differently from the version he delivered five years ago, but Znaniecki preferred to look at the wider picture. He talked about how art reflects life, and vice versa, and how they resonate with each other. 
“This is a very very important production for the subject I choose,” he observed. “Thematically, the opera is about a dictator. It is about power, and the government, and the situation of the country. Of course, the time [between the current and previous productions] has changed. I think the world is more ballo in maschera [masked ball], you know with Trump and [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán, and [leading conservative politician Jarosław] Kaczynski in Poland. Things are getting worse and worse, and there is danger to democracy.”
All of this, Znaniecki feels, runs through Verdi’s opera. “Now I make this stronger, compared with five years ago,” he says, referring to the political subtext of the mid-19th century libretto, adding that global politics are currently deteriorating rapidly. “In the morning, I read in the paper about [controversial Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, and his actions. Then I go to the rehearsal and I have the same situation [in the opera storyline].”
It is, says the director, very much a matter of real life outdoing fiction. “The opera should let us think about what is going on, and analyze the world, and even make us be careful of the advice of the politicians. This is the story about a dictator, like Stalin, that we have in the last dance in ballo.” It is about pushing the boat out. “It is so nice this show so let’s make it more dangerous, because the world is more dangerous.”
THERE IS no shortage of skulduggery and nefarious deeds going on in Verdi’s work. The plot centers on the assassination in 1792 of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot while attending a masked ball and died of his wounds 13 days later. Of course, an illicit love affair does an operatic narrative no harm at all, and there is passion aplenty throughout the libretto.
There is also no shortage of oxymoronic pairings, which serve to heighten the drama. “We have a very serious moment, and then se say, ‘OK, let’s make fun of this,’” Znaniecki explains. “It’s like a satirical program on television. It’s so popular and it is telling the truth about our situation. We are not forced to be serious all the time because it [global politics] is so crazy, and so dangerous.”
The 19th century opera composer also got in on the act. “We have all these stand-up comedians talking about the situation, every day, about politicians. We need it, and Verdi is doing it. I follow him and we make a funny situation, and later we have a serious situation.”
That presents the director and the rest of crew with challenges. After all, it is an opera they are supposed to be putting on, not getting into contemporary politics and trying to actively influence public opinion. “This changing and switching situation is most difficult for us, artists, of course,” Znaniecki notes. “We want to cry together and we want to be very deep. But we have to be careful. People come here [to the opera] to have a nice time. So we have to follow him [Verdi], and I trust him a lot. That helps.”
It’s a balancing act. “You think about Trump. I was working on Carmen in the United States during the [presidential] elections and people everywhere were laughing. They were saying it is impossible for Trump to be elected. He is such a caricature of himself, no one could believe he can win and he can be dangerous. You are laughing, and in just one minute you change. But it’s dangerous. It is the reality and you have to live with this.”
Znaniecki says the vocalists have to be on their toes. “It is not a mistake of Verdi that he put a funny aria of Oscar [Boston governor Riccardo’s page boy] in every act, in the most tragic moment. This is the idea.”
The opera follows the switchback line through to the end. “The last dance, the Danse Macabre – the dance of the death – is all this. It is contrasts, being happy and killing people. It’s so modern I think.” The same, he says, goes for actual real life. “We had a mayor [former Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz] in Poland killed [on stage at a charity event], and one hour later we have a funny program on television. This is our life now.”
If only someone had listened to Giuseppe Verdi.
Surtitles in English and Hebrew. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il