United Kingdom Verdi, Un ballo in maschera: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor), Leeds Town Hall, 3.2.2018. (CF)
Gustav, King of Sweden – Rafael Rojas
Count Anckarstroem – Phillip Rhodes
Amelia – Adrienn Miksch
Ulrika Arvidson – Patricia Bardon
Oscar – Tereza Gevorgyan
Count Ribbing – Dean Robinson
Count Horn – Stephen Richardson
Count Horn – John Savournin
Christiano – Richard Mosley-Evans
Director – Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer – Hannah Clark
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Choreography – Laïla Diallo
Un ballo in maschera is a funny old operatic beast. A troubled birth with the censors back in Verdi’s day has seen it chopped and changed into all kinds of inoffensive and de-radicalised settings from Szczechin, Poland to Boston, Massachusetts. Opera North’s first performance reverts to its source material – the King of Sweden’s court – albeit with a few modern touches in the mise-en-scène, such as assassins wielding 9mm Glocks.
The performance opens with a spartanly-furnished room, its soft Nordic hues reminiscent of a Vilhelm Hammershøi interior. On stage is Oscar, the king’s page, a trouser-role which receives a stand-out performance here by Ferrier Competition finalist Tereza Gevorgyan. The young Armenian singer has a contagious stage-presence, supremely confident and charmingly playful. In this performance, mime and gesture count as much in coaxing out the role as the phenomenal coloratura voice she possesses, and which easily matched the size of the theatre. Soon she is joined by conspirators and loyalists of the male chorus, whose drab grey and beige suits and hats recall the 1940s era, and then all the principle parts are introduced, from King Gustavo (Rafael Rojas), his best friend Count Anckarström, sung with suitable stolidity and jilted rage by Philip Rhodes, to the chief plotters Count Ribbing and Count Horn.
The demonic orchestral fortes which start the second scene received a fiery attack from Opera North’s orchestra, one of many revelatory moments in a generally punchy and pellucid account from the pit. Here, the plot turns on what the fortune-teller Ulrica (Patricia Bardon) has to say. She sports a beret and trouser-suit, reading palms at a café table cocooned by smoke and crimson drapes, a nod perhaps to Resistance-era France. It is an effective counterbalance to the washed-out hues of the palace. She is surrounded by the female choir dressed in raincoats and wave-crenulated hair. Her smoke-y contralto is another high-point of the evening, and she is convincing in her invocation of Satan to enable her dark art of prophesy.
Into this Satanic den comes Gustavo in the unlikely disguise of a fisherman, here painted in the broad brushstrokes of Captain Haddock’s cap and Breton caban or pea coat. He is here to have his own palm read and assassination foretold, as well as to overhear Amelia’s desire to be rid of her illicit love for the king (she is married to Anckarström). The choral plotters, loyalists and Oscar have accompanied Gustavo, swapping their double-breasted suits for oilskins. Rojas was rather uninspiring tonight, both here with the hammy miming of overhearing Amelia’s audience with Ulrica, and in the final protracted death scene, in which the white-face and purple suit brought Jack Nicholson’s Joker unfortunately to mind.
Following Ulrica’s instruction, Amelia goes in search of a magical herb that will rid her of her wrongful love, in a grim vale of execution on the city edge. The herb’s mystical descent from on high in a bouquet all felt a bit kitsch Wagner, and was the only bum note in a generally note-perfect piece of dramaturgy. The lighting of this scene was superb, turning the stage into one of those vintage colour filters on Instagram where the reds have a greenish-bluish tint reminiscent of early Technicolour film prints. It was suitably eerie and unsettling, and turned Amelia’s heartbroken aria Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa into a sort of Gothic cabaret torch song. Richard Farnes’ lovely conducting allowed for plentiful spaces in the score, and at this juncture, it unfortunately made audible an alarm that was going off, mercifully subdued a little by whoever’s handbag or manbag it was in. Thus, Amelia’s Who is weeping? became What is beeping? Adrienn Miksch deserves credit for ignoring its intrusions, and so powerful and compelling was her rendition that I did, too.
The final masked ball, which gives the opera its title and allows the long-presaged assassination to take place, was another coup de théâtre, providing a masterclass in choreography and stagecraft. The chorus waltz through the stage in their masked apparel of velvet and black, wigs and whiteface, providing a dizzying display of seeming homogeneity. It allowed the audience to feel something of the delight and menace of the masked ball, as we too hunted out both the assassins and their target, Gustavo.
The female performers in trouser-suits or trouser roles provided the most memorable moments of the evening, overshadowing the men both as agents of plot and conniving, and also in voice. Gevorgyan, Miksch and Bardon all filled the Grand Theatre with their voices in a way that Rojas and the other principal men did not seem able to. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the finale, when the chorus crescendos into a wall of sound, and individual voices – Amelia, Gustav, Oscar, Ackerstrom – should all be audible ‘in the mix’, but only Amelia and Oscar were.
Un ballo is a difficult opera to make work, and on balance, I think Opera North do enough to justify the entrance fee for both die-hard Verdi fans and curious opera-goers alike.
After Leeds the production tours to Salford Quays, Nottingham and Newcastle for more information click here.