Ramon Vargas is a thrilling Riccardo in the Royal Opera’s revival of Mario Martone’s uninspired production of Un ballo in maschera. Unable to seize upon the work’s unique juxtaposition of humour and horror, Martone presents a series of anodyne stage pictures that fail to do the work justice.
Setting Un ballo in maschera in its revised Boston setting robs the work of its dramatic verisimilitude, so it’s hard to fathom Mario Martone’s decision not to opt for the original Swedish setting as the opera deals with actual events, namely the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden. Of course Verdi had to change the setting as the censors at the time wouldn’t allow an opera which dealt with such sensitive and possibly inflammatory subject matter, but with this particular composer it’s usually best to present his original thoughts, such as performing Don Carlos in its original French as opposed to Italian, but I digress.
Having decided on the Boston setting Martone then updated it to around the time of the American Civil War to no apparent gain, as the direction of the singers (this revival was entrusted to Daniel Dooner) was bland and there was little sense of dramaturgy. Only in the Act Three confrontation between Renato, his wife Amelia and the conspirators did dramatic sparks fly, but that was a bit late in proceedings. With David Alden’s incandescent 1989 production for ENO still burning bright in my memory, and having witnessed Claus Guth’s spellbinding modern-dress production for DNO last year the Royal Opera’s staging didn’t come within a fraction of either of those in beginning to try and explain what this opera is really about.
Musically things were generally much better. I don’t believe Ramon Vargas has done anything finer in this house than this gloriously-voiced performance as Riccardo. He found the right kind of swagger in the voice to begin with yet gave a meltingly-lyrical rendition of his Act Three aria ‘Forse la soglia attinse’.
As Amelia, Angela Marambio was making her house debut and whilst her voice is not particularly original or memorable her intentions to sing a proper Verdian line were always admirable even if she didn’t always technically deliver. ‘Morro, ma prima in grazia’ was beautifully sung with pathos, poise and precision. Dalibor Jenis sang the role of Renato at a relentless fortissimo, which can’t be what Verdi had in mind. His phrasing was choppy, and he quite simply shouldn’t have been singing a role like this in a house of this size. In the correct repertoire I’m sure he’s a thoroughly musical singer but his voice is not up to the demands that Verdi requires.
Anna Christy was a perky Oscar whilst Elena Manistina used her cavernous low notes to give Ulrica a suitable air of mystery and foreboding. In the relatively small role of Silvano, Changhan Lin made his mark here is a true Verdi baritone of enormous potential. Maurizio Benini certainly knows how this work should go, and he elicited some fine playing from the orchestra.