DramaOperaReviewSouth West

Un Ballo in Maschera – Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Music: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Antonio Somma

Director: David Pountney

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

It would seem appropriate, give its close proximity to Valentine’s Day, for Welsh National Opera’s Spring Season to kick off with David Pountney’s new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, although, possibly, the assassination of mine host at said ball could hardly be termed desirable. Based loosely on a true event – the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden back in 1792 – the opera, one of Verdi’s greatest works despite the rarity of its performance, went through several changes due to the politics of the time over a period of years before arriving at the version which is performed today.

Set in Boston, the plotline, briefly, is this: Riccardo, governor of the city, is desperately in love with the beautiful Amelia, who returns his feelings but who happens to be the wife of Riccardo’s secretary and best friend Renato. Their affair is conducted in secret but a fortune teller, Ulrica, warns of trouble ahead both politically and personally, resulting in Renato’s siding with conspirators plotting against the governor after discovering his wife’s infidelity and, ultimately, in tragedy.

Somma’s libretto is a finely balanced mix of comedy and tragedy. Pountney has chosen to overload on the former in a production which begins with Riccardo reclining in his coffin reviewing the list of guests invited to the ball, the audience perforce having no choice but to work backward – an arguably questionable device. Riccardo’s delight in seeing Amelia’s name on the list is short-lived when he learns through the fortune teller Ulrica of a political plot against him.

Verdi’s exquisite score, under the baton of skilled conductor Carlo Rizzi, underlies a mix of drama, political unrest, comedy, and tragedy, but here the latter is overshadowed by an overload of political innuendo and allusion and an overdose of masks. Fortunately, the casting is spot-on. American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, who has sung several times previously with WNO, in the lead female role of Amelia, gives a finely nuanced and musically exquisite performance, particularly poignant in her duet with Riccardo – Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones – in the second half. With its switch between the comedic to the tragic, the latter is not an easy role and Hughes Jones copes manfully with the inherent difficulties.

As Renato, the authoritative stage presence of Roland Wood, who has sung the role previously with Grange Park Opera and who was seen as the pater familias Giorgio Germont in WNO’s recent production of La Traviata, together with this singer’s fine baritone, makes him a pleasure both to see and hear. Julie Martin du Thiel is a spritely Oscar, Riccardo’s manservant, a pantomimic role which brings together the diverse strands of the plot.

With the same creative team as that used for La Forza del Destino, seen last season, it is perhaps due to budget, that use is made of the same set, with sliding panels well to the fore, not always advisedly. Political references are rife (are those windows Amsterdam or Reeperbahn?) * Costume designer Marie Jeanne Lecca’s masks are stunning and fittingly chilling at times, ditto the costumes, in particular, those of the skeleton-clad legendary WNO chorus in the finale. Atmospheric lighting pinpoints towards the tragedy of an opera divided between comedy and tragedy, with a pair of doomed lovers at its heart.

Reviewed on: 9th February 2019 | Image: Contributed

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