Un ballo in maschera, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Hippodrome - review

In his day Verdi was considered the master of the operatic genre. And un ballo in maschera was regarded as one of his most accomplished works at the time of its premiere in 1859.

Love, power and politics collide in Un ballo in maschera which was staged at Birmingham Hippodrome
Love, power and politics collide in Un ballo in maschera which was staged at Birmingham Hippodrome

Today the opera ranks only a lowly 70th in a list of popular operas though there are reasons for this.

The subject matter is perhaps less relevant now than when it was first performed, and is as much about political intrigue as a tragic love affair.

Riccardo is a politician, but he has begun to disappoint the people who originally backed him and are now plotting against him. He is secretly in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend Renato, and she is secretly in love with him.

Renato finds out about this betrayal and gets together with a group of subversives who are determined to have Riccardo assassinated and it is Renato who was chosen to deliver the fatal blow at a masked ball.

If only life were that simple. Italy at this time was in a state of political upheaval and the authorities in Naples, where the opera was to be first performed, were worried that a depiction of a real European king (Gustave 111 of Sweden) being killed by his subjects might cause a political reaction. The production was moved to Rome, but there were difficulties there as well and the setting for the plot became Boston in North America.

Verdi's brilliant and sumptuous scoring may lack a memorable aria but the orchestra under Carlo Rizzi caught the passion of the story most effectively.

The principals, too, were in fine form. Gwyn Hughes Jones gave us an interesting Riccardo in a beautifully balanced interpretation while Mary Elizabeth Willliams continues to fulfil the promise of her early career as her Amelia was a performance which was as delightfully acted as it was sung. Roland Wood was memorable as the betrayed husband Renato and Sara Fulgoni made an impressive soothsayer Ulrica. The Welsh National Opera chorus was as usual in superb form and delivered its lines with great authority.

David Pountney’s production has some striking effects, but occasionally these detract from the beauty of the music.

Riccardo’s first appears emerging from a coffin, Ulrica spends her first appearance perched on top of a precarious step-ladder. There are fox heads adorned with red LEDs and skeleton costumes.

Some of the choreography has glimpses of Gilbert and Sullivan, whilst the set appears to be an art gallery furnished with old cinema seats. The blocks that comprise the set are moved around by very obviously high-tech stage-hands. Though they introduce elements of farce into the proceedings they don’t really add much to the spectacle, or the development of the plot.

In essence, lots of lovely music to enjoy, but rather too much in the way of distracting detail on stage.

WNO’s Spring season continues Thursday and Saturday with Mozart’s Magic Flute with Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux being performed on Friday.

By Jerald Smith

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