WNO - Un ballo in maschera - Milton Keynes Theatre (atgtickets.com)
With Un Ballo in Maschera Giuseppe
Verdi gives us a taste of nascent Scandi Noir but with big Italian flavours –
passion, betrayal and death, especially death, saturate the piece, turning this new
production by Welsh National Opera into an evening of gothic splendour.

The 1859 opera is based on
the 1792 assassination of the
Swedish king Gustav III. who was killed as the result of a political
conspiracy against him. He was wounded while attending a masked ball and subsequently died. In
his opera, however, Verdi insisted on giving the ruler and loyal adviser
Italian names - Riccardo
and  Renato repectively,  which can be a point – a small one - to
stumble over.

At the heart of the plot is
a love triangle – Riccardo loves Amelia, wife of Renato, but while she loves
him, she won’t disgrace her husband. A midnight assignation goes terribly wrong
and in saving Riccardo’s life, Renato discovers his wife’s apparent indidelity,
which s enough to drive the adviser to join the plot against the king. Add a
seasoning of magic herbs and witchcraft and the stew bubbles over.

What makes this dish so
delightful, though, is director David Pountney’s decision to stage the opera with
what is almost a punk pop video aesthetic in red and black. The first act
brings out the substantial dark humour of the piece, the second the agonies of
love, the third a ramping up of tension as the plot against Riccardo comes to a
climax.  Death where is thy
sting-a-ling-a-ling indeed.

Any piece of storytelling
involving an assassination is a tough one because, obviously, we know what
happens in the end. In this production a drawn-out death scene at the end is
subverted by opening the first act by Riccardo waving from his coffin to Oscar,
his waspish page and Ulrica, the witch who lights the blue touchpaper for the

Hugely enjoyable too are the
set pieces for the ensemble. Of particular note is the ghoulish ball of the
title, in which the sober garb of the conspirators is swapped for Day of the
Dead-style skeleton costumes. 

As Riccardo, Gwyn Hughes Jones was in fine
voice, balancing his role as  capricious frivolous,
slightly debauched leader of men with that of the ardent lover. His voice is
powerful, true and sustained. Exactly what Verdi was looking for in the part.

His performance was matched – even exceeded
- by that of Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia. We’re given a sample of her range
and power in the first act but it’s in the arias and duets with Riccardo in Act
2 and Renato in Act 3 that her singing and acting reveal a huge emotional heart that is literally
breath-taking. It’s a role made for her.

Roland Wood's Renato was stern, censorious – and beautifully sung, as was Julie
Martin du Theil’s impish page Oscar, who radiated a larkish charm whenever she
appeared on stage.

On this night the WNO Orchestra under
Gareth Jones were at the top of their game especially in providing an emotional
base for Renato’s celebrated “Eri tu” aria.

A very fine spectacle indeed.

Don’t miss it when it comes your way.

Review by Quentin Fox