Un ballo in maschera

Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera has had a rough ride in London in recent years, from Calixto Bieito’s toilet-themed shambles at the Coliseum to the anodyne treatment, recently revived, at Covent Garden. It’s been left to Opera Holland Park to come up with an ingeniously-conceived and, for the most part, well-executed staging.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Jamie Vartan set this story of an assassinated king in the present-day White House and, some excesses aside (a few too many mobile phones and Amelia shooting up heroin during the love duet, for instance), it works extremely well. It’s full of neat modern parallels and deft theatrical touches (I particularly like the arrival of the guests for the ball during the preceding scene).

Tenor Rafael Rojas missed the first night because of a chest infection (he mimed while David Rendall sang from the pit) but he was back two days later for the second performance. Not fully back to form, his singing was punctuated by coughs, but we got a good indication that this is a powerful and vibrant voice which, combined with alert acting skills, made for a credible president.

If Amanda Echalaz displayed a slight timidity in her physicality, her singing as Amelia was marked by a sharp-edged commitment that is propelling her into the big time (her ENO debut as Tosca next season was pre-empted last week when she stood in for Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Opera House). This is another performance by this exciting soprano that points to great things ahead.

Lloyd-Evans cleverly sets the second scene (Madame Arvidson’s spooky lair) in a TV studio, with the soothsayer as a Mystic Meg, but with slightly cannier powers of prediction. Carole Wilson is less powerful but at the same time less strident than many in the role. Olafur Sigurdarson is a sturdily sung Renato and Gail Pearson’s female PA Oscar captures the strange mix of comedy and tragedy that runs through the piece.

On an evening when it looked as though we may escape the showery tendency of an unpredictable Summer, the quiet opening of the opera was all but drowned out by the sound of heavy downpour hitting the venue’s protective canopy. From then on, the City of London Sinfonia’s account, under Peter Robinson, of this wonderful score beat off any outside threat. The playfulness of the operettaish aspects combined with its grand sweeps in a constantly engaging and hugely enjoyable performance.

– Simon Thomas