Un ballo in maschera – Opera Holland Park, London

Composer:  Giuseppe Verdi

Text: Antonio Somma

Director: Rachel Hewer

Conductor: Sonia Ben-Santamaria

Reviewer: Margarita Shivarova

This three acts opera by Giuseppe Verdi, first performed in 1859, tells the intense story of a love triangle and the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in the 18thcentury. The motives of human instinct, desire, friendship, treachery, dignity and revenge are passionately revealed amidst a social setting induced by power and position.

Delivering this classical piece with a generous dose of innocence and emotional intelligence does justice as much to its original creator, as to the efforts to sustain the captivating nature of operas for new generations. The latter is achieved by the strong performances of young sopranos and baritones such as Jack Holton (Anckaström), Claire Lees (Oscar) and Georgia Mae Bishop (Madame Arvidson) and the direction of Rachael Hewer.

While throwing us straight into the action by revealing the forbidden affection Gustavo holds for Amelia, his best friend – Anckaström’s wife, Verdi masterfully puts up the frame of a picture that will unveil a number of surprises. Highlights in the performances of Act I are brought in through the combination of love declarations, jolly schemes and the dark predictions of a fortune-teller (Madame Arvidson).

The work of the costume designer impress for the first time as we see Arvidson’s  witchcraft” tested by members of society and Gustavo in disguise himself. The flickering black dress and hat suggesting mysterious forces match perfectly Arvidson’selegant sweep across the stage. In comparison, the 1940s America costume style of the chorus risks a slight detachment from the otherwise preserved classical genre of the production. Although undisturbed by the gloomy future prediction of “death caused by the first man who shakes his hand”, Gustav is yet to find out destiny has its own play in mind. This is soon projected through the powerful solos of Nadine Benjamin ( Amelia)who demonstrates seamless characterisation of the human consciousness being a victim of devilish love desires.

The Second Act, albeit shorter, offers a much more intense feeling of the creeping tragedy as Amelia herself takes the advice of Arvidson and pursues the cure of her misfortune through a secret drug. The backstory of conspiracy against Gustav who has followed her, then draws the main parts of the love triangle in one room where restlessness arises in the hopes that no one would reveal the affair. Although exactly the opposite happens, instead of being left on the edge of their seat, the audience is lightly prepared for the next act. The closing chorus sequence in Act 2 that takes a look at the gossips to be spread about how Anckaström’s was played leaves the audience humming the music as they walk down the stairs during the interval.

In a number of instances including the Third Act where Anckaström’s and the conspiracy are invited of the masked ball organised by Gustav, a marvellous uplifting libretto is delivered by Oscar, the king’s messenger, who almost reminds of King Lear’s own Fool. As Anckaström’s determines that Gustavodeserves to die for his betrayal, the heavy despair of what the characters have been brought to is felt throughout. The flawless work with the setup between scenes doesn’t disturb the seriousness of the situation enhanced by the conductor and orchestra’s input. As Madame Arvidson’sprediction becomes a reality, the strong motives of love, dignity, guilt and forgiveness play out in the conversations between the main trio.

An uplifting in a number of ways, this production pushes the boundaries through having a female conductor and supporting young artists. The story equally transcends and reminds of the essential human relationships heavily romanticised in the past and still defining our existence today.

Reviewed on 28 June 2019 | Image: Contributed

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