Un Ballo in Maschera, Holland Park Opera, July 2009Posted on 19 July 2009
This Verdi opera is based on an 1833 play by French playwright Eugène Scribe (1791–1861), which in turn is loosely based on the death of King Gustav III of Sweden. He was the victim of a political conspiracy, and shot while attending a masked ball. The opera was first given in 1859, but in a different guise because the censor would not allow a king’s murder to be represented on stage, and the setting was transposed to Boston. The king was replaced by the colonial governor, renamed Riccardo, and his secretary Count Ankarström was renamed Renato. The fortune-teller Madame Arvidson (based on Ulrica Arfvidsson, the most famous fortune-teller in Swedish history) was called only by her first name, Ulrica. Legend has it that the king went to Madame Arfvidsson in disguise, as happens in the opera, and she warned him, “Beware the man with a sword you will meet this evening, for he intends to take your life”. After the king’s murder many of her clients were apparently scared away and she died in poverty.
This production by Martin Lloyd Evans, with designs by Jamie Vartan, set everything in the modern world, centred on the US Government. I found Act I a bit fussy with all the mobile phones and the rushing around, but I thought things improved later and gave a sense of reality to the drama. The key scene in the opera is the Act II midnight encounter between the king and Amelia, where they are surprised by Amelia’s husband Ankarström, and she veils her face. He has come to warn of the conspiracy, and as the king escapes he commands Ankarström to escort the veiled lady back to town without enquiring after her identity. Unfortunately the conspirators intercept them and when her veil comes away in the tussle, and Ankarström sees it is his wife, he joins the plot and the king’s fate is sealed. In this production, Amelia was disguised by sun glasses and a blond wig, rather than being veiled, and the encounter took place in the back-streets, with drug addicts and other ne’er-do-wells appearing and vanishing. Act III was back in the government building, and the scene between Ankarström and his wife, joined later by the conspirators, was very well played, with party guests entering through a metal detector. When the party was underway the guests stayed mainly behind a screen, which I thought focussed the drama well.
Rafael Rojas was to sing King Gustav (presumably the US President in this production) but being out of voice on opening night he acted the part, with David Rendall singing it beautifully from the orchestra pit, and the two of them combined their forces to perfection. Count Ankarström was Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson, whom I saw last year at Holland Park as Barnaba in La Gioconda, and the year before in L’amore dei tre Re; his voice was strong and fitted the part well, though he lost his pitch at one point. The vital role of Amelia was brilliantly sung by South African soprano Amanda Echalaz — she seems to be a coming star on the operatic stage. The page, portrayed as a young woman, was very charmingly sung by Gail Pearson, the fortune-teller by Carole Wilson, and the conspirators, Counts Ribbing and Horn by Paul Reeves and Simon Wilding. Peter Robinson conducted with great sensitivity to the singers, and I thought this was altogether a very fine Ballo.