The Royal Opera – Un Ballo in Maschera [Hvorostovsky & Stemme]

Un ballo in maschera [A Masked Ball – Melodrama in three acts; sung in Italian]

Riccardo – Richard Margison
Renato – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Amelia – Nina Stemme
Ulrica – Stephanie Blythe
Oscar – Patrizia Biccirè
Samuel – Robert Gleadow
Tom – Matthew Rose
Silvano – Jared Holt
Judge – Nikola Matišić
Servant – Neil Gillespie

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras

Mario Martone – director
Sergio Tramonti – sets
Bruno Schwengl – costumes
David Harvey – lighting
Duncan Macfarland – choreography

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 November, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

As the last of his operas from the 1850s, “Un ballo in maschera” occupies a pivotal position in Verdi’s output as a whole. It may not have quite the sheer emotional and melodic appeal of the “Rigoletto”–“Il Trovatore”–“La Traviata” triumvirate, the potent theatricality of “I Vespri siciliani” or expressive depth of “Simon Boccanegra” – yet, in its integration of music and drama, it stands arguably as its composer’s most coherent and satisfying operatic venture at this time: a culmination in Italian opera of the mid- Romantic era, and which made possible Verdi’s appreciably grander designs over the following decade.

Most famous for a setting that, on intervention by censors, had to be transferred from eighteenth-century Sweden to seventeenth-century United States, ‘Ballo’ offers interesting challenges to a director in terms of defining its social outlook and, hence, its political complexion. Mario Martone has opted for the Boston of the ‘mid-nineteenth century’ (and approximating to the opera’s first staging in 1859); one that could thus either anticipate the stirrings, or reflect the aftermath of the cultural conflagration that was the Civil War. It is a solid, dependable staging: scenically unimaginative during Act One, but evoking a keen sense of death and decay in the gallows setting of Act Two – and, in the latter scenes of Act Three, utilising reflective surfaces and a ‘virtual’ stage for the actual Ball which powerfully underscores that sense of emotional dislocation as the assassination itself becomes an inevitability. Unfortunately, such divergent stage apparatus cannot be adapted from a single design such as would facilitate swift transition between acts: thus the half-hour-plus intervals, in an opera that barely breaches the two-hour mark, seriously impede the progress of what needs be a taut, fast-moving theatrical experience; one which outweighs any attempt at visual continuity inferred by Sergio Tramonti’s appropriately ‘period’ sets and David Harvey’s rarely less-than-effective lighting.

The cast could be described as unexceptionally fine. As Riccardo, Richard Margison is mellifluous in tone but lacks something in presence (one can hardly imagine this governor stealing someone’s castle or executing anyone’s brother), but while he misses out on the full expressive range of one of Verdi’s most inclusive tenor roles, his personable and – as events prove – forgiving nature yet prevent the drama from ever seeming morally black and white. Even so, he is upstaged at every turn by Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Renato, his greatest ally who becomes his sworn adversary through one of those plot contrivances which events render as pre-ordained. With Hvorostovsky’s once rather generalised baritone is now honed with a fierce, though rarely unsubtle theatrical instinct, this is a portrayal believable and thus sympathetic in its human frailty – concealed beneath a confident and often formidable veneer.

If dramatically a little under-powered, it would be hard to imagine a better sung Amelia than that by Nina Stemme, presenting the hapless wife as one whose every attempt to right her imagined wrongs brings a further turn of the screw, while Patrizia Biccirè is inspired as Oscar – the page whose role of confidante to her superior as well as the unwitting accomplice in his downfall is superbly taken. The smaller parts are well cast, with Robert Gleadow and Matthew Rose complementing one another in tone and temperament as assassins Samuel and Tom, Jared Holt a vivid and unmannered Silvano, and Stephanie Blythe a forthright Ulrica whose ominous, even baleful demeanour prevents the role from descending into theatrical cliché (which unfortunately cannot be said of her stage appearance).

The Royal Opera Chorus (with some brief but always crucial contributions throughout the opera) and Orchestra were on fine form – but the overriding musical success lies with Sir Charles Mackerras, whose conducting has a stylistic conviction, astuteness of balance vis-à-vis voices and instruments, and a fluency of dramatic pacing as evident in Verdi as it is in Mozart, Janáček and, indeed, every opera composer he had been associated with over a distinguished career. Moreover, that sense of ‘Ballo’ as the culmination of a whole era of Italian opera comes through in the sense of elements from Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini (to name Verdi’s most significant precursors) seeming to be drawn into a theatrical synthesis as flexible dramatically as it is expressively. Rhythmically, too, there is little, if any, of the foursquare nature that still too-often passes for Verdi conducting: there was only a supple forward movement that effortlessly maintains momentum over the opera’s course.

A memorable first-night was made more so by it also being Sir Charles’s 80th-birthday, duly marked at the curtain calls with a suitable cake and a house rendition of the appropriate greeting. Mackerras responded with his customary modesty, and his conducting alone warranted such a reception. A revival which, although the original production was only seen earlier this year (with a different cast and conductor), emerges newly-minted and so demands to be heard.

  • Performances at 7 o’clock on 21, 25 & 29 November and 3, 7, 13 & 16 December, and on 10 December at 6.30
  • Giuseppe Gipali sings Riccardo on 7, 10, 13 & 16 December
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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