Somma (after Scribe) and Verdi
10 March 2018
Un Ballo in Maschera is from Verdi’s mature ‘middle period’, after the vintage years of 1851-3 and the two big pieces that followed in 1855 and 1857 (Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Simon Boccanegra), and yet not as often played today as his earlier and later masterpieces.
It’s highly thought of by enthusiasts, and so you have to ask why it isn’t seen more. I guess the reason may lie in the storyline, which is from a time when cloak-and-dagger was very much the norm in opera plots, but where the big love interest remains chaste – fatally so.
Loosely based on Swedish history, it shows King Gustavus III in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend, Anckarström, who finally joins conspirators in doing away with him at a masked ball (hence the title), even though she has been faithful and he has respected that. The plot provides a spooky fortune-telling scene predicting the king’s death, and also a very human situation in which suspicion, mockery and jealousy lead to the deadly denouement.
In Tim Albery’s new production they let the music do the histrionics, with a setting that is plain in the extreme – just a box with some doors in it, really. Changes of furniture and lighting imply changing locations, whether a palace, a home, an exterior or a ballroom, and the costumes are generic mid-20th century.
This has great advantages, because with former Opera North music director Richard Farnes, a great Verdi conductor, back in the pit, the music dominates, and the music is fabulous. It’s got the dramatic crashes, the marching tunes, the shrieking piccolo parts and all the other ingredients that Verdi knew so well how to mix.
All you need to add to that formula is a cast of terrific singers, and it has that, too. Rafael Rojas (Gustavo) has never sounded better – and he’s done some great singing in Manchester, from his time at the Royal Northern College of Music through to recent leading roles for this company. Adrienn Miksch (Amelia) is from Hungary and made her Opera North debut with this show, and she is a real discovery – a thrilling operatic soprano voice and able to control it from the merest whisper to a searing blast.
Phillip Rhodes (Anckarström) has done great work here before and is well cast, his open, honest persona tragically converting to that of assassin, and his voice on top form. Patricia Bardon (Ulrica, the fortune-teller), an Opera North stalwart, has the spine-tingling low mezzo register to curdle the blood; and Tereza Gevorgyan (Oscar the page-boy) is a newcomer with the figure and expressive powers to make her role (one of the few ‘trouser’ ones for soprano) believable and very listenable.
It’s sometimes said that Un Ballo in Maschera is a mixture of tragedy and comedy and you need to bring out both. Well, on this showing it’s not so much that as a well-told tale full of sheer exuberance: it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s very much Verdi.
Reviewer: Robert Beale