Thursday, 28 June 2018

Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo, Roland Wood, Elisabetta Fiorillo, Tereza Gevorgyan, dir: Stephen Medcalf, orchestra of English National Opera, cond: Gianluca Marciano; Grange Park Opera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Verdi's complex opera in its American setting with some strong individual performances

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Elisabetta Fiorillo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Elisabetta Fiorillo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
With it's complex political background, Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera provides the director with a variety of choices. Antonio Somma's libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustavo III of Sweden, was just too much for the King of Naples' censors, particularly in the light of assassination attempts on Napoleon III, so the opera was ultimately premiered in a version set in colonial-era Boston, well away from any Western European monarchy. It has become common in recent times for productions to revert to the original Swedish setting.

For his new production of Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera, Stephen Medcalf opted for the American setting, with Jamie Vartan's sets and costumes firmly placing it in the mid-19th century (seen 27 June 2018). Vincenzo Costanzo was Riccardo, now a very presidential figure, with Claire Rutter as Amelia, Roland Wood as Renato, Elisabetta Fiorillo as Ulrica, Tereza Gevorgyan as Oscar, Matthew Buswell as Sam and Matthew Stiff as Tom. Gianluca Marciano conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Historical accuracy in Un ballo in maschera is an impossible thing as Verdi and Somma played so fast and loose with history. The real King Gustavo III certainly did not have an affair with his best friends wife, in fact he was probably homosexual, had trouble consummating his marriage and may well have not been the father of the royal princes. Also, the real fortune teller, Madame Arvidson (Ulrica), used coffee grounds for the purpose rather than communing with Satan.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Roland Wood, Tereza Gevorgyan - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Roland Wood, Tereza Gevorgyan
Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
So the requirements for a production are to project the opera as written, rather than try to re-purpose it. Medcalf's 19th century American setting provided the right structures, giving us a hierarchical society yet one in which people would convincingly believe in a fortune teller and go searching for obscure herbs by gallows.

The advantage of the 19th century American setting was also economic, Medcalf and Vartan re-purposed the set from their 2017 production of Wagner's Die Walkure for Grange Park [see my review], which coincidentally also starred Claire Rutter. This provided a very handsome setting for the opening and closing scenes, and by using inserts Vartan created credible and evocative settings for Ulrica's hut and for Renato's study. The problem came in Act Two where David Plater's lighting could not disguise the rational grey of the set, and the emotional atmosphere of the setting just did not match that of the music. But then again, I have yet to see a production of the opera which manages to bring this act off completely successfully.

That it worked is thanks to the commitment and intensity of the performance. The whole production was crisply and tightly directed, and the performers brought the drama strongly to life making suspension of disbelief quite easy. The libretto has quite a few dramaturgical holes if you aim at naturalism, but here we simply were gripped by the characters presented to us.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Vincenzo Costanzo, Claire Rutter - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Vincenzo Costanzo, Claire Rutter -  (Photo Robert Workman)
Claire Rutter made a powerful and intense Amelia, so that we never really see her relaxed. From her first entry she was wound up. Whilst the character appears in Act One and in the closing scene of Act Three, it is in Act Two and the opening of Act Three that we get fully to know Amelia. Rutter moved from anxiety through guilty rapture to profound remorse. In the scene with Renato in Act Three you longed for her to really stand up to him, but of course she does not and Rutter's performance here was profoundly moving. With Vincenzo Costanzo's Riccardo in Act Two she gave us a thrilling sense of rapture, having started with wonderful shivers of horror at the opening of the scene.

Vincenzo Costanzo was a real charmer as Riccardo, bringing out the lightness and comedy in moments like Riccardo's reaction of Ulrica's fortune telling. His attractively lyric voice has an interestingly edgy quality to it which lent his performance real distinction, though there was a tendency to tightness in the upper register. But he never quite convinced that this happy go lucky man would consider risking everything for love in Act Two. I think part of the problem was that Costanzo's voice did not quite have the heft to ride over the orchestra. So whilst we missed some of the role's complexity, there was certainly much to enjoy in a finely lyric account of the role.

There was a wonderful solidity to Roland Wood's portrayal of Renato, the dependable best friend, both in terms of his physical presence and the strength of his vocal performance. This made the reversals of Acts Two and Three all the more shocking and believable. We had a very musically satisfying account of 'Eri tu', with Wood giving us finely shaped and supported phrasing, yet it was dramatically apposite too.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Roland Wood & Chorus - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Roland Wood & Chorus - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Elisabetta Fiorillo was thrilling as Ulrica, singing with rich tones supported by a fabulous chest register. She made Ulrica intensely believable by being very concentrated rather than relying on lots of theatrics. It was a mesmerising performance and you rather longed for the character to return later in the opera, alas she never does!

Oscar is a slightly strange role. Verdi famously disliked women singing male roles, and some commentators have speculated that the role is a covert nod to King Gustavo's homosexuality. There was none of that here, and Tereza Gevorgyan played him as an annoying brat whose rather unspecified role allowed him carte blanche within presidential entourage. Frankly, I longed to give him a good slap. But Gevorgyan was spectacular in her account of the role, giving us plenty of charm and a winning way with the role's roulades.

As the two lead conspirators, Matthew Buswell and Matthew Stiff provided a suitably threatening background and made a strong impression in the moments in the spotlight in Act Three.

The chorus is given plenty to do in this opera, and the chorus of Grange Park Opera seized their opportunities from the opening counterpointing of support and opposition to Riccardo to the wonderfully pointed laughing chorus at the end of Act Two.

In the pit, Gianluca Marciano gave us a lithe and fluent account of the score, with the orchestra of English National Opera following him and giving us a highly sophisticated performance, which combined a nice bounce in the rhythms with some particularly atmospheric moments in Act Two.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matthew Stiff, Claire Rutter & Chorus - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matthew Stiff, Claire Rutter & Chorus - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
For all its central place in the canon of Verdi's masterworks, Un ballo in maschera remains a tricky opera to bring off. Stephen Medcalf, Gianluca Marciano and the cast went a long way towards the goal of an ideal performance. There was strong story telling, and we came away engaged, satisfied and provoked.

The new theatre has come on enormously since last year, acquiring a handsome brick-work skin and the temporary toilet block has been replaced with the permanent lavatorium rotundum. There is still a lot of work to do, but there is an undoubted attractiveness to the auditorium in its stripped back state.

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