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Reviews

07 Mar 2019

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Un ballo in Maschera: Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo), Roland Wood (Renato) Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

The conflict between private passions and public obligations is currently also exercising English Touring Opera . Here, though, Pountney seems less interested in his monarch’s regal responsibilities than in his thespian inclinations with the result that both the love triangle which spawns vengeful jealousy and the political conspiracy with which the former becomes entwined, with tragic consequences, are overshadowed by theatrical conceits, with Riccardo more stage director than sovereign potentate. In Un ballo Verdi balances private intimacy with public spectacle, but Pountney, Bauer and Lecca give us not so much grandeur as gothic Grand Guignol grotesquery.

I should start, though, by saying that musical values and achievements are very high indeed in this production, and that however diverting (and, admittedly, at times entertaining) the games and japes in which Pountney indulges, the director makes space for Verdi’s beautiful score to breathe. Carlo Rizzi presides in the pit and masterfully overseas a performance characterised by strongly defined and delineated musical moods and strokes. A whispered pianissimo at the start of the overture immediately established a conspiratorial air, and the tautness of the gruff fugato which conjures the schemers’ intriguing tightened the screw further. Spine-twitching gun-shot chords initiated Act 1 Scene 2, but such hyperbolic gestures were complemented by melodic shaping of touching beauty; the aching cello obbligato which accompanies Amelia’s melancholy aria ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ in Act 3 typified the prevailing expressive eloquence, and was matched by the cor anglais’ haunting commentary during Amelia’s grand scena in Act 2. This was some of the best orchestral playing - stirring colours, pinpoint details, confident ensemble and spot-on tuning - that I have heard from the WNO Orchestra.

Riccardo and Amelia.jpgGwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo), Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Pountney has reunited the central pair of star-crossed lovers from last year’s production of La forza del destino and tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams once again exhibit power, stamina and subtlety as Riccardo and Amelia. Though there was some occasional roughness as his voice swelled in its lower regions in Act 1, Hughes Jones relished the more expansive moments of heroic lyricism. He really acted with his voice during the scene at Ulrica’s ‘urban coven’, and ‘Di’ tu se fedele’ sparkled with insouciant recklessness. Hughes Jones’ Italian diction was consistently excellent, and he captured all of the monarch’s presumption, paranoia and impetuousness, though Pountney’s conception deprived the King of true nobility.

This Amelia is a little one-dimensional - not really Williams’ fault as she too is rather pushed to the hinterland by Pountney’s conception - but she can float a phrase glorious and use the gentle edge of her soprano to garner our sympathy and convey emotional realism. Ronald Wood was returning to a role in which he so impressed at Grange Park Opera last summer, and if Wood seemed a little less central to the dramatic thrust of the opera this time round, when able to let Renato’s vengeful energies off the leash in Act 3’s ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima’, Wood was compelling.

Roland Wood Renato WNO.jpgRoland Wood (Renato). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Despite such musical luxuries, at times I found Pountney’s concept - or multitude of concepts - somewhat taxing. First, the location. After the Revolutions of 1848, the crowned personages of Europe were understandably twitchy about ensuring that their own heads stayed attached to their shoulders, and when Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma presented the subject of Gustav III of Sweden’s assassination as the subject for the composer’s next opera the censors were rattled, forcing the duo to relocate the action to colonial Boston. And that’s ‘where’ the opera premiered when seen for the first time in Rome in 1859; it took another seventy-six years for it to find its way home to its Swedish origins, in a production staged in Copenhagen.

Pountney plumps for a Swedish setting - though he retains the characters’ Italian names: why not go the whole hog? - at the time of the assassination of Gustav III, a man he describes as “enthralled by theatre and disguise”. Indeed, this ‘enlightened despot’ who ruled from 1771 to 1792 - when, at a masquerade ball, he was surrounded by five black-cloaked assassins, one of whom cried, “Bon soir, beau masque”, before shooting the King in the back - was a devotee of the arts, and especially the theatre. He established the Music Academy in 1771, the Academy of Painting and Sculptury in 1773, the Academy of Belles Lettres, History and Antiquities in 1786 and the Swedish Academy that same year. A writer of plays himself, Gustave found The Royal Great Theatre/The Royal Opera in 1782.

So, Pountney makes his Gustav a sort of Prospero, directing his own life story - not exactly from the wings, but rather from centre-stage. Throughout, ‘Riccardo’ consults a little leather-bound red book - presumably directorial notes - and the ‘walls’ which form the set are revolved by pronouncedly visible stage-hands. Rows of theatre seats, not unlike those we are nestled in, are placed far stage-right so that the characters can spectate unfolding events. When we reach the gallows scene, these walls are robed in velvet red curtains.

Indeed, our first ‘sighting’ of Riccardo is not seated on his throne, but ‘hiding’ in a black sarcophagus, with a leather-suited Oscar prone in mourning across the state coffin. We might be in Gustav Adolfs Torg Square which houses the Opera House and Jacobs church; or, we might be beside an Italian tomb. The shadow of death is cast across proceedings and there’s no doubting Riccardo’s fate: but, actually, its all a jolly jape - the lid of the ebony casket opens and out climbs Riccardo, alive and kicking, to the playful Oscar’s joy! Sung at this performance by Harriet Eyley (replacing Julie Martin du Theil), this Oscar is Ariel to Riccardo’s Prospero, relishing his master’s machinations and whipping off the wig of the Judge (Gareth Dafydd Morris) who wants to banish Ulrica before racing up to the uppermost window above the square, poking his head through the curtain, and defending the fortune-teller while derisively waggling a grinning, carnivalesque head on a stick. Perhaps Pountney is invoking Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, and the relationship between laughter, sex and death? And, perhaps this isn’t so far-fetched given the opera’s premiere during the Carnival season in Rome, the custom of crowning and then uncrowning a Carnival King, the opera’s tropes of masking and disguise, and the fact that Oscar is a travesti role?

WNO cast with Ulrica Bill Cooper.jpgSara Fulgoni (Ulcrica) with WNO Chorus. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Whatever, Ulrica (Sara Fulgoni) herself makes the first of her many - often unscripted - appearances in this opening scene, for Pountney makes the soothsayer a prominent presence, much in the same way that Justina Gringytė’s Preziosilla haunted last year’s La forza. We also meet the conspirators, squashed under the coffin, revealed by the lifting of the black drape; cloaked and masked, they seem to have stepped from the pages of a comic strip and it’s hard to believe that they present a credible threat to Riccardo. The ‘seriousness’ of the drama is further quashed at the end of the opening scene when the Chorus whip off their top hats and tails, and trade them for naval and pirate costumes complete with tricorns and eye-patches. When they essay a conga around the stage we’ve crossed into Gilbert & Sullivan territory.

Chorus - skeletons.jpg Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The gothic excess is pushed to extremes in Act 1 Scene 2. Ulrica is a sort of Madame Blavatsky surrounded by billowing smoke and grim acolytes thrusting fateful fingers-on-sticks and dollar-sloganed tin-cans at gullible punters. Fulgoni doesn’t always surmount the orchestral fabric but she sings with blazing intensity. Later both she and the dark-toned conspirators, Samuel (Jihoon Kim) and Tom (Tristan Hambleton) are whizzed about on a high chair on wheels - is this an allusion to the Throne of State of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost? By the time the top hats have sprouted lycanthropic adornments with flashing red eyes, the acolytes begin stabbing needles into red poppets, and the orange-lit wall niches are filled with skulls, we’ve truly wandered onto a Rocky Horror Show set. In a crowning gesture, in the final scene the Chorus’s elegant evening dress is shed to reveal enough skeletons to seriously rattle the censors; it’s the Day of the Dead, clearly, but the destined corpse doesn’t die. Instead, Riccardo watches as a cipher takes the knife.

Amelia and Chorus.jpg Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia) and WNO Chorus. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

It’s almost as if Pountney has presented Verdi’s opera at one remove, allowing the director - or the Swedish King himself - to present his own ballo in maschera of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Clever stuff, and often intriguing, but occasionally baffling.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

Riccardo - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Amelia - Mary Elizabeth Williams, Renato - Roland Wood, Oscar - Harriet Eyley, Ulrica - Sara Fulgoni, Judge - Gareth Dafydd Morris, Silvano - Jason Howard, Amelia's Servant - Andrew Irwin, Samuel - Jihoon Kim, Tom - Tristan Hambleton; Director - David Pountney, Conductor - Carlo Rizzi, Set Designer - Raimund Bauer, ​ Costume Designer - Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Lighting Designer - Fabrice Kebour, Choreographer - Michael Spenceley, Associate Director - Robin Tebbutt, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Wednesday 6th March 2019.

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