Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Having been distracted by the war, Gustavo, King of Sweden, returns home desperate to see the love of his life. Trouble is, the woman in question, Amelia, is his best friend’s wife. So begins the simple but powerful tale of a love triangle that is never going to end well. Based on a true story, Verdi and librettist Antonio Somma came under fire from the Neapolitan censors when they first tried to get this opera to the stage in 1857, with demands that identities were changed. Verdi wasn’t keen on this idea but the opera was finally staged in Rome in 1859, transported, rather unexpectedly, to Boston.
All this makes for a story that could be set anywhere at any time but recent productions, this one included, relocate to Sweden and reinstate the original names. Verdi would be pleased.
On a set depicting a grand, stark, grey room, the King’s court assemble. He’s a popular king but there’s enemies in the ranks and a plot to kill him. He won’t hear of it, though, he just wants some peace – and the chance to see his beloved Amelia. There’s a fortune-teller in town, though, and she’s considered to be a subversive trouble-maker. In disguise, the king, along with a number of his court, visits her to check out if she should be banished, only to hear a chilling prophesy of his own death. Where there’s a prophesy in drama you can usually see where things are going to end, and Un Ballo In Maschera plays by the rules, as the affecting story moves towards a tragic finale.
The simplicity of the story is played out in Verdi’s hauntingly beautiful and paired down score. We hear a series of glorious laments, declarations of love and confessions, forlorn solos offset by briskly efficient and often cheerful intercessions by the chorus. Rafael Rojas depicts a virtuous king whose honour is disrupted only by love, and even then without stepping out of line. Rojas is terrific in the role, and vocally astounding. His solo in Act Three, just before the masked ball where he knows his time will be up, could break your heart.
Adrienn Miksch as Amelia also has some glorious solos, and delivers a convincing performance as a woman torn between two men who love her. Phillip Rhodes as her husband adds huge vocal weight to the production and plays turn-coat on his friend the king with convincing anguish.
Oscar, the King’s Secretary is a quirky addition to this solemn opera. Played by a woman – Tereza Gevorgyan – he’s an odd character, fiercely loyal, androgynous and totally up for a party. Interestingly, when it comes down to it, it’s Oscar’s arms that the king dies in. History debates King Gustavo’s sexuality, but given the pursuit of Amelia that forms the backbone of the opera, poor Oscar is probably always going to be the one to be left out. Gevorgyan plays the Secretary with a little too much perkiness, which at times feels of place in this maudlin atmosphere. It’s difficult to say what Director Tim Albery is doing here, but he could have given Oscar a bit more depth of character.
Design by Hannah Clark is triumphant. It’s simplicity sits perfectly with the pared back nature of the opera. The royal court is cold and austere, the bar where the fortune teller hangs out suitably seedy and the masked ball a visual delight. Albery’s direction of the crowd scenes creates an ever changing tableau that makes full use of the huge chorus and Clark’s fantastic black and purple costumes, white wigs and make-up.
For an opera that doesn’t get very regular outings, this is a great choice by Opera North. There might not be much in the way of familiar tunes but with its powerful story and heart-breaking score, it is a complete winner.
Reviewed on 10 March 2018 | Image: Clive Barda