Un Ballo in Maschera, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, December 2014.Posted on 19 December 2014
This new Ballo by German director Katharina Thoma is a co-production with Dortmund where it had its premiere in September. The Germans, who display a fondness for Regie-Theater, criticized it for timidity and bowing to the dull tastes of a Royal Opera House audience where tourists expect something simple. Such a misunderstanding of the Covent Garden audience perhaps distracted them from appreciating the merits of this interesting production.
Ms Thoma first came to attention in Britain with an ill-liked Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne in 2013 betraying an unhealthy obsession with World War II. This production by contrast is situated in Europe before World War I, and the reason it works is that it deals with the original essence of the story. An enlightened ruler is assassinated by those who fear the loss of entrenched interests, and Verdi’s scenario involved the murder of Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. When Naples refused to put it on, Rome accepted but with a change of location, the king of Sweden replaced by the governor of Boston. Modern productions are not so hemmed in, and Ms Thoma has done something intriguingly different. She sees it as the end of an era, where change is coming but confusion abounds and disaster strikes.
Her pre-World War I location could be the Adriatic coast southeast from Trieste since the conspirators’ headgear is the fez, suggesting the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand the sailor suit at the end for Amelia’s little son is reminiscent of the Tsarevich in Nicholas II’s family, and the ruler Riccardo wears a military uniform like that of the Tsar.
Set and costume designs by Soutra Gilmour and Irina Bartels are very effective, and in the central scene of this opera — the Act II setting in the cemetery — statues adorn the tombs, as per Père Lachaise. Yet during the meeting between Riccardo and Amelia they move, which she sees but he does not. Fine choreography by Lucy Burge, and when we see the four statues reappear in Act III they move in very slow dance mode, joining the string quintet in an antechamber.
As to the singing, Riccardo was the golden voice of Joseph Calleja, though with a rather wooden stage portrayal, and Amelia was very dramatically sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, her voice rising above everyone else in key moments, though there was weakness in the lower register and her style in this role may not be to everyone’s taste. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang calmly and nobly in the key role of Renato, showing real emotion in Act III, and the remarkable Marianne Cornetti dealt well with the depth of voice for Ulrica the fortune-teller. Anatoli Sivko and Jihoon Kim were excellent as conspirators Samuel and Tom, the Act III trio with Renato being superbly sung, and as Oscar the page, Serena Gamberoni was a revelation, almost stealing the show.
Fine work from the chorus, and impassioned conducting from Daniel Oren, but despite many of the right ingredients this first night did not really gel, and there is something wrong when the page is the strongest singer on stage.
Performances continue on various dates until January 17, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on January 10 — for details click here.