The first night of this second revival of Mario Martone’s production (first seen in April 2005 and now directed by Daniel Dooner) of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) made for a generally enjoyable and involving evening at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
The scenario includes a plot to assassinate Riccardo, Governor of Boston (the political censorship of Verdi’s day had the story moved from the intended Sweden to America). Also crucial is that Riccardo’s (platonic) attraction to Amelia, the wife of Riccardo’s seemingly faithful secretary Renato, is misinterpreted by her husband. Renato’s loyalty turns to revenge, on both his wife and Riccardo. Ulrica, a fortune-teller, has predicted all of this (“I must commune with Satan”); here she is strikingly played by Elena Manistina (who makes a memorable ROH debut). At the culminating masked ball recrimination and tragedy ensue aided by the page Oscar’s unintended indiscretion; a wonderfully bubbly characterisation by Anna Christy (another notable debut) whose crispness of delivery was a joy. The tragic dénouement itself, at the grand ball (lavishly staged), is enhanced with mirrors and is cleverly dimensional, if back to front!
Good sets (Sergio Tramonti), costumes (Bruno Schwengl) and lighting (David Harvey) complement well the music and action; the Act II shades-of-grey bombsite-like ruins, gallows centre-stage, is striking, and the Act III confrontation between Amelia and Renato (in a study recognisable of the period, a rocking-horse pointing to this being a family house) raises the temperature. Ramón Vargas is a warm-toned and vibrant portrayer of Riccardo, a good man. Perhaps Dalibor Jenis consciously takes a while to emerge as Renato; from friend to enemy and joining with the conspirators who also want rid of Riccardo; Jenis has greater stage presence being revengeful than as a caring secretary. As Amelia, Angela Marambio presents us with an honourable lady, loyal to her husband and to her child, accepting the fate (death by her husband) that the misunderstanding Renato has for her. If she doesn’t quite claim our hearts (as did Nina Stemme in the first revival, which Sir Charles Mackerras conducted) Marambio puts her very being into the role and is a communicative singer.
Conducting this time is Maurizio Benini (a regular with Royal Opera). He has a real understanding of Verdian style and sound, and his pacing of the opera is virtually ideal; the playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is poised and confident, with some fine solos, not least from principal flautist and principal cellist. The singers are well supported and the orchestra retains its all-important contribution; let your ears do the telling of the story. The ROH Chorus is also on fine form. If only some in the audience had restrained from vociferous applause after arias; one of them had its quiet orchestral ending obliterated. Such a shame.
If Un ballo in maschera (the last of Verdi’s operas from the 1850s and occupying a pivotal role in his canon) isn’t as popular as, say, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La traviata, or as great as Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff, it has some fine music (lyrical and exciting) as well as scope for suspense and drama, which is vividly brought off here; indeed your reviewer was just in the right mood for intrigue and revenge and this performance filled the bill well!
Antonio Pappano (music director of The Royal Opera and the first conductor of this production) was in the audience – given his current workload in this house (conducting three productions – Lulu, La traviata and The Barber of Seville – and playing the piano for a recital), what do you do on a night off? Go to an opera! I recommend you do, too; you’ll have a ball! Masks optional!