Un ballo in maschera Verdi | WNO (wno.org.uk)
Love, power and politics collide in Un ballo in maschera – based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden.
Welsh National Opera’s new production of ‘Un ballo in
maschera’ is the second instalment of the company’s ‘Verdi Trilogy’ under the
patronage of the Italian ambassador to the UK. This is a co-production with
Theater Bonn and the team includes a good number of Welsh and English names as
well as cast and creative from elsewhere in Europe and further field. A fine
example, then, of harmonious international collaboration.

‘Un ballo in maschera’ – a Masked Ball – has complicated
origins. The original libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on the historical
figure of Gustavus III, the theatre-loving King of Sweden, and his
assassination in 1792 by a disaffected and unbalanced nobleman, Count
Ankarstroem. Italian censors in the 1850s were unsurprisingly nervous about a
monarch being killed, if only on stage, so Verdi and his collaborator Somma
moved the action to the then remote and exotic USA. Gustavus became Riccardo,
Governor of Boston, and Ankarstroem was now his secretary, confidant and
husband to Amelia, loved by Riccardo. That sets up the central fatal triangle:
add Ulrica, a gypsy fortune-teller straight out of Il Trovatore (or Gilbert and
Sullivan); the mischievous page Oscar, a skittish ‘trouser role’; and assorted
courtiers, sailors and witches, and the dramatic raw material is complete. The
only nod towards the new setting is Renato’s co-conspirators Tom and Sam,
authentic cardboard-cut-out baddies.

By now in the middle of his creative career and in full
command of his own musical language, Verdi here produced a score of great
variety. His mastery of orchestral colour and vocal style makes for intensely
dramatic moments as well as scenes, particularly the more intimate ones, of
profound emotion; he also produces chorus writing which veers from the solemn
to the banal (back to G & S).

Director David Pountney’s approach to this kaleidoscopic
material is to add further layers of complexity, often at odds with the score.
Taking his cue from Gustavus-Riccardo’s love of theatre, he has the Governor
‘stage’ many of the scenes. This means the opera opens on a mock funeral with
Riccardo emerging from a coffin (shades of the Habsburg Charles V rehearsing
his own funeral?). Elsewhere, Riccardo delivers one aria as if rehearsing it;
directs another as if from a prompt copy; and has a body-double stand in for
him in the final scene where Renato stabs him. In all this he is abetted by
Oscar and applauded by a toadying band of courtiers. Design maintains the
theatrical conceit: the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca are an eclectic mix of
operetta-military and steampunk; Raimund Bauer’s full-height movable panels can
be house fronts or multiple proscenium arches; theatre seats are wheeled in,
making the chorus into audience. Theatricality extends to a melodramatic acting
style which is presumably deliberate (the eye-rolling judge, the Grand Guignol excesses
of Ulrica.) The rum-ti-tum jollity of some chorus numbers is echoed in a chorus
line performing a Pirates of Penzance hokey-cokey.

The other major influence invoked here is the Gothick style.
The world of the supernatural was explored in Baroque opera and later,
influentially, by Weber in Der Freischütz. It comes to the fore here in the
scene where Amelia goes at midnight to pick a magic herb, and Verdi revels in
the dark and mysterious sounds that conjure such a spooky scene.

Set against the superficiality of the public scenes, the
private triangle of Riccardo-Amelia-Renato inhabits quite a different world.
Amelia is an entirely credible anguished mother and lover, tormented by an
illicit love; Renato a convincing wronged husband torn between jealousy and
loyalty. The private scenes between these three are genuinely moving: there is
no chorus present, so Riccardo stops playing to the gallery, and this is
mirrored by a naturalistic approach to these scenes. Whether this collision of
styles and the manifest inconsistency of text and action in this production are
effective will be a matter for each observer, and much depends on the success
of the cast in persuading the audience.

Musically this was a powerful performance with strong
principal singers. Gwyn Hughes Jones filled the role of Riccardo impressively,
his steely voice rock-solid across the range and throughout the evening. He
coped with the near-freakish demands of ‘Di’ tu se fedele’ and conveyed the
breathless, superficial enthusiasm of the character. Mary Elizabeth Williams
was a riveting Amelia, dark and slightly veiled of voice with admirable breath
control and a fiercely focused acting style. Phillip Rhodes was a more than
adequate, if stolid, Renato: a late substitute, he came into his own in his Act
III scene with Amelia, especially in his ‘Eri tu’ aria. Physical and vocal
agility characterised Julie Martin du Theil’s appealing Oscar, though she and
Sara Fulgoni were at times overwhelmed by the orchestra. Fulgoni’s Ulrica also
had to contend with one of the dafter elements of the set, a cross between
wheelchair and scaffolding tower.

Chorus and orchestra had both been expanded: the orchestra
by an offstage band in the ball scene which would have benefited from being
nearer the stage. Crisp though its delivery was, it seemed to be playing
outside in Denmark Street. The chorus was augmented by 20 extra voices. They
delivered a well-balanced sound with exemplary diction and some impressive
pianissimo moments. The orchestra was expressive and attentive, with lovely
cello and cor anglais solos for Amelia’s arias. Gareth Jones conducted with
unobtrusive authority, achieving tight ensemble and tempi that allowed the music
to breathe. The few moments of imbalance between orchestra and singers were
probably less down to him than to the lack of pit in the theatre.

Did the sonic and visual elements of this ‘Ballo’ add up to
a convincing whole? Did the director even mean them to? It was a performance of
massive contrasts, even contradictions. I found elements of the staging crowded
out Verdi’s narrative and would utterly have confused a newcomer to the piece.
Having Riccardo pretending to be dead at the start of the opera is one thing, a
bit of fun; but that he should be left standing at the end and, in character,
acknowledging applause after his own ‘death’ left me perplexed and strangely
unsatisfied, after an evening that had nevertheless been a delight to hear. So,
to misquote John Bercow, ‘the ears have it, the ears have it.’