United Kingdom Verdi, Un ballo in maschera: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Gareth Jones (conductor). Theatre Cymru, Llandudno, 24.4 2019. (RJF)
Director – David Pountney
Set designer – Raimund Bauer
Costume designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting designer – Fabrice Kebour
Choreographer – Michael Spenceley
Riccardo – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Amelia – Mary Elizabeth Williams
Renato – Roland Wood
Ulrica – Sara Fulgoni
Oscar – Julie Martin du Theil
Samuel – Jihoon Kim
Tom – Tristan Hambleton
Judge – Gareth Dafydd Morris
Silvano – Jason Howard
Servant of Amelia – Andrew Irwin
Purist musicians often berate Verdi for the plots of his operas, particularly his earlier ones that were often based on pseudo historical situations with convoluted twists of the plot. Such criticism fails to recognise the circumstances of the composition of the works. At that time, what we now know as Italy was a series of separate states under Austrian or French occupation. Before an opera or play appeared it had to pass the censor. Any subject that impinged on religion or was likely to provoke patriotic feelings among the audience, stood no chance of approval. Verdi, however, had learned early in his career that his audiences soon related to oppressed Hebrews (Nabucco) or imprisoned Crusaders (I Lombardi) and identified themselves with the patriotic situations, and particularly choruses, found in many of his operas. The cry of ‘Viva Verdi’ that resounded in and outside opera houses also denoted Victor Emmanuel Re De Italia, a rallying call for the single state we know today.
By the time of the composition of Un ballo in maschera Verdi was a rich and powerful man. He had purchased an estate at Sant’Agata near his birthplace and found peace and great pleasure in its development. He no longer needed to write two operas each year and only agreed a contract if location, singers and subject appealed to him. In 1857 he wanted to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, when the Teatro San Carlo in Naples approached him Verdi did not believe the house soprano to be suitable for his vision of Cordelia, and he chose instead the subject of Un ballo in maschera and asked the poet Antonio Somma to prepare a libretto. When the libretto was submitted to the censor in Naples they made seven major objections that involved no fewer than two hundred and ninety-seven lines of the 884 in the text! Their objections involved the assassination of a king, the location in northern Europe, the inclusion of sorcery and the use of firearms on stage. Poet and composer agreed a transfer of location to Boston, the king to a duke and a stabbing not shooting. Still the censor was not satisfied, and Verdi cast around for another theatre. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the Teatro Apollo with the king becoming Riccardo, Count (or Earl) of Warwick an English colonial governor, and the Swedish Count Anckarström, Renato his secretary.
Given the above background to the composition it is little wonder that producers of opera are often schizophrenic as to what to do when invited to present an opera. That is also before we get to the present tendency of Konzept opera and Regietheater that dominate the current European mainland operatic scene. At Welsh National Opera, with former boss David Pountney bequeathing himself a Verdi trilogy of productions of major Verdi middle period operas, before his own departure, it is no surprise that a certain dichotomy of intention might intrude. Whilst the names and words are of the later permitted production – with Riccardo being a count not a king – we might not think of Sweden but of America. However, there is a fundamental dichotomy in this staging that bellies logic and which I have tried to explain, even justify, to several friends in respect of the fist and last scenes of the opera. The curtains open with a coffin entering with a supine black-clothed body on top which turns out to be Oscar, Riccardo’s perky page. As she skips away the coffin opens and guess what, out steps Riccardo! Matters are even more confusing in the last scene in this production. Riccardo is neither shot nor stabbed, but comes forward to sing the final contribution, centre stage, alive and well. At this point there are many ghouls – for want of a better word – costumed figures emblazoned with skeletons in various states of demise on stage. The meaning or symbolism of this I do not know and cannot guess, nor do I think did Gwyn Hughes Jones in the role, who delivered a very vocal and Italianate rending of Verdi’s dramatic and sublime melodic music throughout the performance to this point.
Elsewhere in the staging, despite quirks, I could follow the story I know so well. However, I thought the scene by the gallows was underplayed with what looked a skull as the only ghoulish accoutrement present. By then, with both voices well warmed, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia and her Riccardo were in truly magnificent Verdian mode in a rending of the Act II love duet that was outstanding. She was also particularly notable in her acting and singing as she is told of her husband’s intention to kill her and she pleads for a last sight of their child. Along the way there were more designer, or producer, quirks with the assassins being wheeled about on top of extended stepladders and rows of the chorus being seated in top hats on old cinema seats. Whatever they were required to do the chorus did whilst also singing quite magnificently.
I couldn’t help thinking that elements of the set owed their origin to last year’s La forza del destino. Their use cramped the stage on occasion such as when conspirators visited Ulrica’a coven and in Renato’s study. As Ulrica, Sara Fulgoni reached for her lower notes on occasions but portrayed the role well including appearing in situations of the plot that Verdi wouldn’t have recognised. Fellow RNCM alumni Roland Wood sang powerfully and acted well in his portrayal of Renato as did Julie Martin du Theil as the spritely page, Oscar, particularly when determined to see justice for Ulrica. Jihoon Kim and Tristan Hambleton conveyed the saturnine nature of the conspirators with vocal sonority and committed acting.
On the rostrum Gareth Jones was an able disciple of Carlo Rizzi who had conduced the earlier performances of the series, drawing elegant or dramatic Verdian phrases as appropriate from the orchestra and providing ideal support for soloists and chorus alike.
Robert J Farr