Monday, January 5, 2015

Guest blogger Judy Dixey sees Covent Garden's Ballo in Maschera

On Friday 2nd January 2015 I went to see Un Ballo in Maschera at the Royal Opera House. Sitting high up and on the side (so that one can afford to go more often and it is not a once in ten years treat), you are very aware that the design has been created for those sitting centrally and lower down.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Joseph Calleja as Riccardo
© ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
The singers mostly stayed centre stage, so you could see most of what was happening. I wish we didn’t have a mise en scene over the overture--it leaves so many questions unanswered. Isn’t the music glorious enough for us to listen to without distractions?

I didn’t get a programme. I have too many of them stashed away, and there is so much rich material included that you need a few days to read and assimilate it. So I prefer to take the show on face value, rather than find out later what the director’s intention was.

This production has had poor reviews, as is the case with so many updated productions when the director’s desire to “make a statement” takes over from the piece itself. Ballo had to have its historical location changed even before its first performance could go ahead, for political reasons, so it is quite reasonable to change it again, if it works. This production is set in the second half of the 19th century. The fortune-teller Ulrica is holding a séance in a society house, and the only person in 18th century clothes is Oscar. Why?

For the most part, the story and the opera do work in this revised setting. The singing was good: Renato (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) a loyal and stern courtier (perhaps too stiff); Amelia (Liudmila Monatyrska), wracked with guilt as a matron who has been struck with a coup de foudre over Riccardo; and Riccardo himself (Joseph Calleja), a weak ruler, who believes his good intentions will overcome the hatred his previous actions have inspired. Oscar and Ulrica (Serena Gamberoni and Marianne Cornetti) deservedly got the loudest applause at the end. The other soloists and the chorus were great. (I wish they’d stayed a bit more with the orchestra.) I’m not sure that any passions were really expressed through the acting--it was all a bit stiff--but then I was sitting a long way away. There were some risible moments, such as Riccardo under the table at the séance, raising the tablecloth to sing his asides; and in the gallows scene, when the child walked across the stage as Amelia (according to the surtitles) was singing that something had crossed her path. Oh dear.

The original production was scheduled to premiere for the carnival in 1858. What a shame then, that there was no carnival feel about this production--colours were dull and masks were hardly visible. I’m not sure I’d have terribly wanted to go to that ball, even without its disastrous outcome. And where was the menace as the conspirators closed in on their prey? Riccardo and Amelia are singing together on their own and on comes Renato with a gun and Bang!, the man is down. He is laid on one of the tombs which are conveniently rolled on, sings his final piece propped up on an elbow then flops down (again with a bang, but fortunately no sniggering from the audience).

Ultimately, however, it really was a satisfactory and worthwhile evening; despite everything, you are reminded that a 150 year old opera like this can be very enjoyable. Perhaps the message is, don’t strain too much to make too many new statements, and do try to ensure the principals are truly engaged and fired up, inspired, themselves, and so, inspiring the audience.

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