Un Ballo in Maschera at The Lowry, Salford
Saturday, March 10th
I had first seen Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) during the hedonistic days of my Erasmus year in France, spookily almost exactly five years ago to the day. For a student, the cost of a night of culture in the faded grandeur of a provincial opera house was less than that of a cinema ticket. On a particularly quiet night you might even be offered a private box for the princely sum of seven euros, while the obligatory Champagne at the interval would set you back less than a pint of Kronenbourg at the local guinguette.
Directed by Tim Albery, this version of Verdi’s 1859 opera (the first time Opera North have staged it) is the last in the “Fatal Passions” series which also comprised Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Fatal passions are certainly at work in Ballo, but here they seem to expire well before the deadly finale. King Gustavo (Rafael Rojas) is in love with the wife of his most loyal friend, Count Anckarström (Phillip Rhodes). Gustavo is understandably (and unsubtly) thrilled that his love Amelia (Adrienn Miksch) will attend his masked ball. In this ebullient mood, he refuses to heed Anckarström’s warning of a plot against his life, believing himself absolutely beloved of his subjects.
In one of the most enjoyable scenes, the King (dressed as a fisherman) visits fortune-teller Ulrica, played by a beret-wearing Patricia Bardon. When Amelia arrives asking to see Ulrica in private, Gustavo hides and overhears an account of her tormented love for him. She hopes to assuage it by following Ulrica’s advice to pick and eat a certain herb which grows at ‘a place of death’, an execution site. When Amelia leaves, Gustavo is eager to have his own fortune told. The mystic reveals that he will be killed by the next man who shakes his hand. Laughing it off, he offers his hand to his unwilling courtiers. Anckarström swiftly arrives and shakes his hand in greeting. Having followed Amelia to the ‘place of death’, the two declare their love to one another, but are surprised by Anckarström. He’s come to warn his King that a group of men are on their way to kill him. Amelia covers her face and Gustavo fleas. The murderous mob arrive, but hilarity replaces blood-lust when the illicit lovers are revealed to be the married couple.
Perhaps the main issue with this production is that Gustavo and Amelia’s purportedly all-consuming ‘pure’ love, the catalyst for the opera’s ‘tragic’ finale, is never convincingly rendered on stage. One wonders how Miksch’s Amelia could truly harbour such intense emotion for Rojas’ foolish, egotistical King. Indeed, the only truly believable fatal, destructive passion here seems Anckarström’s. On discovering the love between his King and his wife, the formerly unfailingly loyal friend resolves to join those conspiring to kill Gustavo. Thus, Ulrica’s prophecy comes to fruition at the masked ball (where else?), as Anckarström stabs Gustavo. Knowing death is near, the King assures his old friend that Amelia was never unfaithful, pardoning Anckarström and his fellow conspirators.
Verdi’s opera is loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was killed at a masked ball in 1792. The composer was forced to change the original setting from Sweden to Boston before its first performance, and the names of Gustavo and Anckarström became Riccardo and Renato (typical Bostonians). From the costumes, featuring smart three-piece suits and trench coats in varying shades of grey and beige, Opera North’s interpretation seems to be set somewhere around the 1930s or ‘40s, though there is no indication as to why this particular period was deemed preferable. Rather confusingly, the masked ball scene sees a sea of white powdered wigs and cast members clad in swathes of fuchsia fabric (but no masks). Hannah Clark’s imposing set design morphs pleasingly from a drab off-white office to the atmospheric red café in which Bardon’s mystic communes with Satan.
As cross-dressing page-boy Oscar, Tereza Gevorgyan proved an audience favourite, bouncing around the stage and charming the Lyric Theatre with her cheeky side-glances. Vocally, she is also among the best of the cast. The three most central characters are somewhat lacking in verve. Miksch summons moments of brilliance, but seems inconsistent, while Rojas’ voice was noticeably tiring by the third act. A stronger showing comes from the pit. Under conductor Richard Farnes, former music director at Opera North, Verdi’s score both caresses and pommels the ears where it should.
The ensemble cast is large, perhaps larger than strictly necessary. It seems to me that the truly powerful moments in Ballo should be those intimate, domestic encounters: Amelia’s revelation of her identity to Anckarström at the execution site, and later her begging to hold her child once more when her husband seems bent on killing her. Here there seems too much insistence upon the final masked ball scene as the emotional and dramatic climax. The death of this vain King is sealed from the very beginning; little drama is finally extracted from it.
I was waiting throughout for that spine-tingling moment in which the convergence of beautiful voices with soaring orchestral music and the emotional intensity of the scene create a perfectly thrilling, hair-raising theatrical experience. The early café scene probably came closest to delivering this when Bardon’s fortune-teller invokes the devil to aid her dark art. The Irish mezzo-soprano is brilliantly compelling and unnerving in this role. Indeed, one wishes that the captivating Ulrica could have returned in the third act to enact some final curse or otherwise inject some last-minute intrigue or excitement.
This production of Ballo is touring until March 24th. It’s a decent effort and an enjoyable night’s entertainment which certainly charms and amuses in parts, but frustrates and disappoints in others. The female cast here are in good form, with Bardon and Gevorgyan undoubtedly the pick of the bunch. But ultimately I found it lacking in passion, emotional intensity and theatrical impact. It’s a masked ball without masks or indeed much of a ball, a love triangle which seems devoid of truly passionate love, and a score which fizzes while on stage the action often falls flat.
by Laura Ryan