Un ballo in maschera, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, February 2019

With the Prince of Wales in attendance at David Pountney’s new production of Ballo, would it be the original late eighteenth century setting with the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, or America with no regicide and Riccardo as Governor of Boston? In the event it was neither, more nineteenth century Gothick with a dose of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in, though Swedish flags made an appearance at the end of Act I.

Amelia and Riccardo, all images WNO/ Bill Cooper

This was a tongue-in-cheek staging to be sure, but none the worse for that since the story abounds with improbable artifice. The search for a herb that must be harvested at midnight under a gallows in wasteland, the fortune teller who seems to know everything, and the king’s absurd decision to ask the rightful husband of his veiled lover to convey her incognito back to town. It is often pointed out that Scribe’s original libretto is in denial of the facts, since the enlightened Gustav III was gay and therefore disinterested in his chief minister’s wife, but in the final scene the mortally wounded Riccardo sings clearly that though he loved Renato’s wife Amelia, he respected her honour. In this production as he stands by the coffin we saw at the start, everyone else falls to the ground and he absolves the conspirators, who they in turn commend his generous heart. Suddenly everything is upside down as befits a tale that should not be taken too seriously.

Ulrica, Amelia and Renato

The singing however was seriously good. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo sang with unfeigned strength and passion, and Mary Elizabeth Williams gave a moving account of Amelia. Their love duet in Act II was simply wonderful, though staged with little physical interaction, and Amelia’s acceptance of death in Act III during the scene with her husband Renato was delivered in a searingly emotional manner. Roland Wood gave a strong and determined account of Renato, and Swiss soprano Julie Martin du Theil was full of fun as Riccardo’s leather clad page, Oscar. Jason Howard provided a nice vignette as the sailor in Act I, Sara Fulgoni a deep mezzo as Ulrica the fortune-teller, and Jihoon Kim and Tristan Hambleton provided excellent bass presence as the two principal conspirators Samuel and Tom.

Riccardo, Renato, Amelia

Skeleton costumes in the masked ball worked well, and the excellent chorus moved in a way that fitted the light-hearted Gilbert and Sullivan feel in some places. The message is not to take Ballo too seriously, except musically where Carlo Rizzi in the orchestra pit gave the music its full deserts.

Performances continue in Cardiff, Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Bristol, Llandudno — see website.

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