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11 Jun 2019

A superb Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park

Investec Opera Holland Park’s brilliantly cast new production of Un ballo in maschera reunites several of the creative team from last year’s terrific La traviata, with director Rodula Gaitanou, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren and lighting designer Simon Corder being joined by the designer, takis.

Un ballo in maschera: Investec Opera Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The masked ball (Act 3)

Photo credit: Ali Wright

 

The latter’s set designs emphasise intrigue and betrayal. Dark panelled walls loom high, imposing bulwarks which shield in secrecy assassins and illicit lovers alike, then swivel exposing treacheries, or open up crevasses through which the guilty can slip away. In Act 1 Scene 2, Simon Corder turns the timber transparent, and through the eerie blue mists we watch a menacing dumb-show of murder.

There’s no specificity of ‘place’: the panels are not particularly ‘Swedish’ or ‘American’, but they blend effectively into the Jacobean Holland House beside which the Opera Holland Park theatre-tent nestles. The ‘tone’ is not especially regal either.

Matteo Lippi (Gustavo).jpg Matteo Lippi (Gustavo). Photo credit: Ali Wright.

This Gustavo is not an autocratic, profligate monarch who abolishes the privileges of the nobility and is challenged by a mutinous aristocracy. The motives driving Ribbing’s and Horn’s assassination plot are personal not political: a beloved stolen, a brother scorned. Gaitanou elects to set the tragic love triangle of Gustavo-Amelia-Anckarström in the early 1950s. The men are dressed in trench coats and trilbies; the women wear frocks and felt hats.

ASD (Amelia) .jpgAnne Sophie Duprels (Amelia). Photo credit: Ali Wright.

Not all of Gaitanou’s ideas ‘makes sense’, alone or in combination. Why are Gustavo and his peers practising their lunges, parries and ripostes during the overture? The fencing masks may foreshadow the carnivalesque masques of the final scene, and the cuts and thrusts are rhythmically in tune with the vigour and tautness of Verdi’s score, but the épées and sabres don’t make any further appearances. Why is Amelia a sculptress? We see her, beside her easel in her studio, working on a clay bust: is she sublimating her erotic desires into art? When her deceived husband later dashes the sculpted head to the floor, is this a symbol of the violence he will do to the real-life Gustavo? And, when sent to the gallows to find the herb that will cure her of her forbidden desires, why does Amelia head to hospital and check into a clinic? When the lovers are interrupted by Anckarström, she’s forced to don a nurse’s uniform and hide behind a perilously flimsy surgery screen.

Anne Sophie Duprels and Opera Holland Park Chorus.jpgAnne Sophie Duprels (Amelia) and Opera Holland Park Chorus. Photo credit: Ali Wright.

None of this matters, though. The singing is so uniformly strong and persuasive that we’re swept along on the increasingly tragic trajectory. Similarly, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren - who impressed so much in La traviata last year - exercises acute control over the pacing and ensures that we’re enthralled. The musical temperature of each moment is brilliantly judged, and varied; and the passion is as much driven by rhythm as it is by melody or colour.

Matteo Lippi’s firm, appealing tenor generates warm sympathy for Gustavo, and his effortless production of sound and fine phrasing is suavely aristocratic. Lippi and Anne Sophie Duprels - a favourite at Opera Holland Park following her fine recent performances in Isabeau and Zazà - made for an impressive central pair of doomed lovers. Duprels employed a dynamic and expressive range of colour in ‘Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa’, when riven with conflicting desires - to submit to or to silence her love for Gustavo - and sang with truly affecting power in ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’, when pleading with her murderous husband to be able to see her son for one last time (though the baby boy is bound up in such a bumper bundle of swaddling that he looks as if he must be at least five years old!).

Lippi and von Bergen.jpgMatteo Lippi (Gustavo) and George von Bergen (Anckarström). Photo credit: Ali Wright.

George van Bergen’s imposing Anckarström burned with feeling from his first to last utterance, his baritone bristling with emotion when he warned Gustavo of the imminent danger to his life and blackened by anger and pain when he vowed to gain vengeance for his former friends’ betrayal. Alison Langer , who took the title role in last year’s OHP Young Artists performance of La traviata, is a lively Oscar, as agile vocally as she is light on her feet. This was a vivacious and good-natured Oscar, whose genuine fondness for Gustavo was worn proudly on his white shirtsleeve. Langer’s soprano shone strongly and vibrantly, and her tall figure and graceful movement ensured that Oscar was both more engaging and a stronger presence in ensembles than is sometimes the case.

Oscar Langer.jpg Alison Langer (Oscar). Photo credit: Ali Wright.

As Madame Arvidson, brandishing an elongated cigarette holder and sporting an astonishing geometrical fascinator, Rosalind Plowright looks like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and the Queen of the Night and she relished the medium’s outlandishness. John Savourin (Horn) and Benjamin Bevan (Ribbing) were convincingly nasty conspirators, while Ross Ramgobin was a lively Cristiano, the sailor whose fortune is foretold by Madame Arvidson.

Plowright Madame Arvidson.jpg Rosalind Plowright (Madame Arvidson). Photo credit: Ali Wright.

The eponymous revelry is a riot of costumed drama: I think I spotted Napoleon, Charles II, Anne Boleyn, a Japanese geisha, a Roman centurion, a musketeer and a highwayman amid the sparkling black and gold crowd. It was a pity, perhaps, that Gaitanou did not swing back the panels at this point - one thing the wide stage at Opera Holland Park is surely good for is a grand ball? But, pushing the cast forward to a narrow strip at the forefront of the stage, Gaitanou both sustained the sense of intrigue, the panels concealing treacheries just as the masks obscured identities, and ensured that our focus at the close was on the dead Gustavo, draped across a white stone ‘altar’, his desolate Oscar at his feet.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

Amelia - Anne Sophie Duprels, Gustavo - Matteo Lippi, Anckarström - George van Bergen, Oscar - Alison Langer, Madame Arvidson - Rosalind Plowright, Ribbing - Benjamin Bevan, Horn - John Savournin, Cristiano - Ross Ramgobin, Servant - Mike Bradley, Un Giudice - Ian Massa-Harris; Director - Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor - Matthew Kofi Waldren, Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Simon Corder, Movement Director - Steve Elias, Fight Director - Bret Yount, Sculptor - Benedict Romain, Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia.

Opera Holland Park, London; Saturday 8 th June 2019.

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