It should be noted that although Zurich opera audiences have come to expect that liberties will be taken, there were more than a few boos when Homoki and his team came out for curtain calls.
For "Ballo," Pountney takes off from the fact that the real King Gustavo III of Sweden was a playwright and theater buff. So Verdi's opera becomes a play staged by the tenor, abetted by his page, Oscar, and a woman who starts off dressed as his nurse but then acts the part of the fortune teller Ulrica.
Anyone who saw the recent David Alden production at the Metropolitan Opera will recognize some similarities: Oscar wears wings; Ulrica takes frequent swigs of liquor, and the opening scene ends with a jaunty chorus line.
In the finale, Pountney gives us not one but three Gustavos — the king who is assassinated during the masked ball, the king who has directed the show, and the life-size puppet king he carries in and lays atop the prompter's box. It's all a bit bewildering.
Tenor Ramon Vargas brings an urgent lyricism to the role of Gustavo, while soprano Tatjana Serjan displays a striking range of colors as his beloved Amelia. Baritone Alexey Markov is impressive as her husband, Renato, though his sound is more Slavic than Italianate. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef is a vivid Ulrica, and soprano Sen Guo a spirited Oscar.
Perhaps the best thing about the performance is the presence in the pit of octogenarian Nello Santi, who leads a rich, finely detailed performance. Santi provides a rare link to a bygone golden era: He made his Met debut 50 years ago conducting "Ballo" with a cast that starred Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill and Leonie Rysanek.