Opera Holland Park hits the bull’s eye with this dramatically alert and exhilarating staging of Verdi’s most enigmatic work for the stage, Un ballo in maschera. Martin Lloyd Evans’ contemporary American setting may upset those hoping for pretty costumes but his staging certainly packs a punch.
It goes without saying that OHP does not have the kind of resources that either ENO or the RO have at their disposal, but in many ways that is a good thing as limited means often result in great results, as is the case with Evans’ new production of Un ballo in maschera. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so enthralled by a staging of this opera and it literally knocked spots off Mario Martone’s dreary staging at the Royal Opera which was revived last month. Whilst that was dramatically dead from the neck down, Evans’ staging, and his vivid direction of his singers, turned the piece into a vital piece of music theatre.
Setting the opera in contemporary America worked exceptionally well and Evans’ staging was full of so many brilliantly conceived directorial insights that it shed new light on the work, but most importantly he caught the mood of the piece more accurately than any other director since David Alden did in his epoch-making production for ENO in the late 80s.
It lurches between humour, darkness, satire and nihilism and has a kind of hallucinatory feel about it unlike any other of Verdi’s operas. The second scene of the first act, set in Mme Arvidson’s lair is always difficult to bring off successfully but Evans nails it by presenting her (Carole Wilson in superb form) as a phoney TV medium who is genuinely shocked by her own ability to see Gustavus’ fate.
Act Two is set on the wrong side of the tracks where Amelia scores some heroin and shoots up, which only helps to intensify the hallucinogenic qualities of the scene which makes her husband’s total humiliation all the more painful. In Act Three the conspirators take their son hostage, just in case things don’t go according to plan and after Amelia pulls her husband’s name out of the hat, thus sealing his fate as Gustavus’ assassin she checks the other pieces of paper, which he hastily grabs off her as he’s written his name on all of them a nice touch.
When Rafael Rojas (Gustavus) succumbed to a chest infection David Rendall was summoned only a few hours before curtain up to sing the role from the pit whilst Rojas walked through the part on stage. It worked surprisingly well and Rendall certainly rose to the challenge and produced some full-throated singing. Olafur Sigurdarson was spine-chilling as Amelia’s husband Ankarstrom, but vocal honours must go to Amanda Echalaz’s gloriously-voiced Amelia. Fresh from her success as Tosca at Covent Garden, she sang Amelia better than I’ve heard the role sung in years, reminding me of a young Katia Ricciarelli praise indeed. All the smaller roles were well taken and Peter Robinson conducted a gripping account of the work. A great evening of music-theatre.