sun 23/06/2024

Un ballo in maschera, Opera Holland Park review - evocative and sensationally sung | reviews, news & interviews

Un ballo in maschera, Opera Holland Park review - evocative and sensationally sung

Un ballo in maschera, Opera Holland Park review - evocative and sensationally sung

A handsome new production of Verdi's Janus-faced tragedy

Masking her feelings: Amelia (Anne Sophie Duprels) warns the king of his imminent assassinationBill Knight

A masked ball is a time of play and role-play, celebrating the duality, the conflicting selves within us all, allowing us to set aside our everyday public mask put on an alter ego for the evening. It seems appropriate then that Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera has a deep fissure running down the middle of its drama.

Is it a fragile, unfulfilled love story – Rattigan or David Lean with an Italian accent and rather more blood – or is it an exuberant piece of gothic horror with a love story and political agenda tacked on? The answer is, of course, both, and that’s the problem with Verdi’s mid-career drama: you never know which opera you’re going to get.

Opera North’s recent staging amped up the camp with plenty of dark glasses and trench coats before losing the plot (quite literally) in a muddled denouement, while David Pountney and WNO embraced the work’s darkness with plenty of brooding and looming. Rodula Gaitanou’s thoughtful new production for Opera Holland Park treads a delicate line between heart and horror, keeping its feet even as the story and its protagonists start their dizzy whirl into the climactic final dance-to-the-death.

Takis’s handsome set – all wood-panelled walls and elaborate cornicing – unfolds like a dolls’ house to reveal a whole team of fencers, each engaged in an elegant bout. The sense is of the closed world of a 1940s gentleman’s club, a place whose sober, ritual solemnity exuberant page Oscar (Alison Langer) disregards with a cheeky wink and a swagger, climbing on benches, ruffling heads and egos as he goes. As the action continues the same panelled walls revolve and rotate to reveal variously the Anckerstrom home, a seedy clinic in the wrong part of town and a magnificent ballroom, but the sense of a shuttered space – claustrophobic, enclosed, formal – persists.

It’s a powerful frame for a drama about social codes, orders and etiquettes – a love-triangle with a political twist. This is a world, a system you cannot escape, even in private. Fighting against this enclosing order are a fine cast led by Matteo Lippi as Swedish King Gustavo, torn between his loyalty to his best friend and illicit love for his wife, and Anne Sophie Duprels as Amelia.

Lippi’s handsomely-sung Gustavo (pictured above with Anne Sophie Duprels) has more than a whiff of the Duke of Mantua about him. Charismatic and easy with privilege, he simply cannot grasp the consequences of his actions, and dances blithely into his violent end without any real comprehension. His dramatic and vocal ease – what glorious gleam and sheen there is to the top of this voice – is balanced by the tightly-coiled neurosis of Duprels’ Amelia. At once fragile and ferociously strong, she summons devastating beauty and desperation for her Act III plea “Morro, ma prima in grazia”, ravishingly accompanied by the solo cello.

The quality runs right through the supporting cast, from Rosalind Plowright’s wonderfully malignant Madame Arvidson (pictured above), who enters like an insect designed by Norman Hartnell, complete with cigarette holder, backlighting, quantities of black lace and an extraordinary hat, to conspirators Ribbing (Benjamin Bevan) and Horn (John Savournin). Alison Langer’s Oscar is a romping delight, dashing off her arias with ease and plenty of nifty choreography, though perhaps not quite catching the youthful innocence of the impatient page. George von Bergen’s Anckarstrom is a more mixed bag. Warmly lovely at its best, the voice can push a bit strident under pressure, giving us a rather steely “Eri tu”.

Gaitanou’s direction is always sensitive and sympathetic, capturing both the widescreen spectacle of the ball scene (beautifully costumed and choreographed) and the intimate awfulness of Amelia (Anne Sophie Duprels, pictured below) and Gustavo’s night-time tryst, not in a scrubby wasteland but a sinister asylum. Only the final, knife-twisting tension of that encounter – the enforced silence between husband and wife as the laughing chorus echoes around them – is lacking, dissipated by too much gesture and not enough loaded stillness.

Conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren puts the City of London Sinfonia absolutely at the heart of Verdi’s scheming and yearning. There’s a spare, skeletal beauty to his Prelude, icy violin broken chords chilling the warmth of the cellos, and this spiky unease runs right through the performance, the music never fully surrendering or releasing into amorous comfort. The opening chords of Act I Scene II ring out like gunshots, and the chorus achieve a subtler menace in a magnificent final scene. It’s vintage Verdi – a welcome return to form for Opera Holland Park after a disappointing season-opener.

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