Welsh National Opera – Un ballo in maschere (A Masked Ball)
Wales Millennium Centre
Saturday 9th February 2019
The Verdi Trilogy from Welsh National is now culminating with its second new production. There is a buzz in the air with Prince Charles at the opening night and one of my favourite singers being in the production. Royalty at an opera with a story concerning a king being assassinated might be pushing things, yet with heaps of security and inconveniences for the audience, we all hoped this fuss was worth it.
Un ballo in maschera is an odd work. Although the story is based on the actual killing of Sweden’s King Gustavus III, you could not portray such action on the Italian stage in Verdi’s era. So how do you go around this? By setting it in Boston, Massachusetts of course! This is a rare occurrence, a state side set opera, though it is a cheeky way round the system. Through this censorship lies concerns in the plot, which feels slightly disjointed. Verdi has some marvellous moments here with arias, duets and some ensemble pieces, the overture as well conducted by Carlo Rizzi was particularly poignant.
David Pountney’s latest production is a queasy mix of bondage gothic meets David Lynch meets Mexico’s Day of the Dead. I wouldn’t say it all worked as staging, though the use of the huge platform walls did help at times to create grandeur and claustrophobia when needed. Some of the Mexican themes of death tie in well with the tense final ball scene, though is there any real consideration for the elements of appropriation this might be utilising? The cyclic element of the opening and closing of this version is a nice touch, though the confusion caused by disguises in the last scene I saw no reason for. The chorus also bring out Swedish flags, just to hurtle the story back to its original premise. You have a rare opportunity to embrace an opera set in (what would become) the United States. Make use of it.
The chorus and orchestra never wane in their musicianship. Mary Elizabeth Williams is Amelia, the love interest here. The appearance of the character might be slight, but we do get to hear this incredible singer give two glorious arias, with much praise and applause after the second at the start of act two. Mary is a force of nature on stage and it is always a delight to welcome her back to Cardiff. If you see the opera, do it for Mary. Our Gwyn Hughes Jones is Riccardo, the cocky leader, who thinks he can have what he wants, lusting after Amelia even though she is taken. Here Gwyn get gutsy arias perfect for his tenor, someone Wales should be proud of, as his reputation soars.
Renato is here played by Roland Wood, a stirring baritone with much hate and vigour when the plot to kill Riccardo is underway. Riccardo’s servant, Oscar is here tackled by Julie Martin du Theil, a rambunctious role that seemed to suit her perfectly. Sara Fulgoni’s Ulrica, a stirring take on the fortune teller, who communicates with the devil is another brief, yet brilliant handling of the character.
I recommend this flawed opera for Mary Elizabeth Williams, the other fine singers and the quirky staging.
Un ballo in maschere continues at the Wales Millennium Centre till 23rd February, with performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.
WNO’s Verdi Trilogy concludes in 2020 with Les vêpres siciliennes at the Wales Millennium Centre and on tour.
Photo Credit: Bill Cooper