The 1850s marked one of Verdi’s most remarkable periods of development. In 1850, he wrote his most challenging opera to date, Stiffelio. So sensitive were the moral issues it presented that the censors obliterated much of its dramatic impetus, yet the score is surprisingly mature. In 1851, Rigoletto pushed the limits of the audience’s sensibilities again, but this time the work was successful, and probably his first undoubted masterpiece.
Two years later, Verdi wrote both Il trovatore and La traviata, which remain two of his best-loved works. 1857 provided Simon Boccanegra, a tremendous achievement as last year’s Royal Opera revival reminded us. Two years later, the composer signed off the decade with one of his most ideal works: Un ballo in maschera.
As Christopher Wintle’s excellent programme note for the Royal Opera’s new production highlights, Un ballo is crafted from extremes of light and shade (chiaroscuro), allowing “the musically portentous to infiltrate the musically inconsequential”. Nowhere is this more overt than in the final scene, where trivial ball music provides the backdrop for the assassination of Riccardo, Governor of Boston. The effect is devastating because we witness both the onstage “audience” (the chorus) enjoying themselves in frivolity and the sotto voce interpolations of the main characters who are aware of impending doom.
This is a marvellous work, and one which has not been seen at the Royal Opera House since 1995 (though ENO’s controversial Calixto Bieto production was shown only a couple of years ago down the road), so it’s good to see it back. It would be difficult, however, to think of anything which serves it more ill than Mario Martone’s intellectually wan and physically decrepit new production. Neither his direction nor the sets of Sergio Tramonti say anything much about the opera, and what ought to have been a highlight of the season (given the lavish casting) has turned into a minor disaster. Tramonti’s sets seem to belong to five different productions. The first act is ultra-traditional; the second rather cluttered; and the third features a mirror backdrop that moves upwards so that we can witness the dealings of the assassins from above. There is such a lack of coherence in this approach as to render the drama a little disengaging.
Thankfully, the musical performance was near-ideal for much of the evening. Marcelo Alvarez was a superbly Italianate Riccardo, the governor whose wife Amelia is having an affair with his best friend Renato. Alvarez’s performances are always honest and open, although he is hardly the subtlest of actors. His voice is well-suited to this role, and after a slightly underpowered La rivedrò nell’estasi, absolutely wowed the audience with his technical finesse.
Amelia was sung for the first time by Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano who gave such a splendid performance in last year’s Arabella. She is one of the greatest singer-actresses in all opera, and was thoroughly gripping in the role. In particular, her encounter with Riccardo in Act 2 and her big scene with her lover Renato in Act 3 Scene 1 were outstanding, even if the role does not always lie well for her.
Thomas Hampson always gives highly intelligent performances in the opera house, treating every line with a Lied-like detail. This was an outstanding interpretation of the role, again not particularly Italianate but riveting from start to end. Inevitably, the big monologue Eri tu in Act 3 was his highpoint, but elsewhere he was equally committed. Likewise, Camilla Tilling was enthralling as Oscar, totally sumptuous in the concertante of Act 1, Scene 2.
Unfortunately, the main character of Act 1, Scene 2, Ulrica, was sung entirely unsatisfactorily by Elisabetta Fiorillo. Her voice sounded uncomfortable for much of the scene, and it seemed as if the demons she was calling up had already retaliated by sapping her of all vocal assurance.
The chorus was in great form under Renato Balsadonna, while Antonio Pappano overcame a shaky Act 1 with a riveting account of the rest of the score. In particular, he brought out the lighter elements of Act 3 with rare skill. Few accounts on record of this opera match his understanding of its tragic-comic discourse.
In all, a theatrically confused but musically interesting performance.