Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London: 17, 21 and 25 November, 3, 7, 10, 13 and 16 December 2005
Nina Stemme as Amelia (photo: Catherine Ashmore)
After a fabulous concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Barbican last month, Sir Charles Mackerras moved to the Royal Opera House on the occasion of his 80th birthday to conduct the first of nine performances of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.
Mario Martone's production was new in April of this year, when the direction and particularly Sergio Tramonti's sets received lukewarm reviews (not least from me).
Seven months later, they haven't really improved - the shallow staging of Act III Scene I could scarcely be less evocative if it tried, and I'm still not sure why the gallows in Act II has been hit by a nuclear bomb.
However, the production is not offensive, just insignificant, and at least it allows us to listen to the music with little impairment. Mackerras's reading was well-paced, with both the lyrical and the dramatic colours of the Act I Prelude ideally depicted. The contrapuntal writing was also attacked with vigour, and in general both singers and orchestra played with great precision.
Even more than in Antonio Pappano's acount earlier in the year, Mackerras brought an understanding of the complexities of Verdi's creation (perhaps the composer's most inventive to that date). High drama is set against light comedy from beginning to end, moving between two opposing styles with the flick of a switch.
The final scene of the opera is a masterpiece in itself, when banal off-stage party music provides the background to the troubled final duet of the lovers Riccardo and Amelia. Happy celebration literally masks the tragedy of the love triangle, in which Riccardo loves Renato's wife, Amelia.
All of this was conveyed with confidance by orchestra and chorus under Mackerras' sterling direction. And Canadian tenor Richard Margison was affecting in this final scene, though he was overtaxed by his big Scene II aria. In Act I, I genuinely thought we were about to experience his finest evening on the Covent Garden stage, but the lyricism so apparent early on disappeared halfway through.
Fresh from her success in the new recording of Tristan with Domingo, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme made both her Royal Opera and role debut as Amelia. She played the character convincingly, making us believe in both her love and guilt, and there were some beautiful moments in Morrò, ma prima in grazia, though she is not quite a natural Verdian.
The disappointment of the evening for me was Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Renato. Where has his magic tone gone, not to mention his power of projection? The first scene was underpowered, and though he improved for an efficient account of Eri tu, much of his singing was uncharacteristically effortful.
Far more the business was the Ulrica of Stephanie Blythe, a vast improvement on her predecessor in the role in this production in April. How many operatic characters want to 'commune with the devil'? Only Ulrica, and it's difficult to portray musically, which made her full voice and commanding presence all the more welcome.
Patrizia Biccirè sang elegantly as Oscar, with easy coloratura. For me, two of the best performances were by former and current Young Artists Matthew Rose (Tom) and Robert Gleadow (Sam), the former showing especial vocal maturity.
It was Sir Charles' evening though, and the birthday cake (with eighty candles!) and standing ovation were fitting tributes to a great artist still at his best.