Sunday 10 February 2019

A jolly good show: Verdi's 'Un ballo in maschera' at WNO

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Mary Elizabeth WIlliams, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Sara Fulgoni, dir: David Pountney, cond: Carlo Rizzo; Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
David Pountney's vividly theatrical if diffuse production, redeemed by superb singing

In his article in the programme book for Welsh National Opera's Spring 2019 season, David Pountney talks about the disparate elements that influenced Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera from the Gothick to Meyerbeerian grand opera, and elsewhere in the programme book an article talks about how steeped in the theatre King Gustav III was. All these elements seem to have gone into the company's new production.

Welsh National Opera opened their Spring 2019 season at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 9 February 2019, in the presence of the company's patron HRH the Prince of Wales, with the second of the planned Verdi trilogy directed by David Pountney, Un ballo in maschera, with set designs by Raimund Bauer and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, the production featured Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia, Roland Wood as Renato, Julie Martin du Theil as Oscar, and Sara Fulgoni as Ulrica, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.

Pountney's interest in the Gothick elements in Un ballo in maschera brought out the theme of death, which inevitably hangs over the opera. The performance opened with a coup, Oscar (Julie Martin du Theil) and Ulrica (Sara Fulgoni) mourning on Riccardo's catafalque, with the courtiers in attendance. Then part of the coffin lid lifted up and a hand waved. This introduced us to the dark humour and skittishness of Riccardo's court. The designs by Raimund Bauer were visually striking, all black and red, with huge screens with openings in them, which moved around the stage. And Marie-Jeanne Lecca's 18th century punk costumes were similarly visually stimulating.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Mary Elizabeth Williams - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Mary Elizabeth Williams
Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Pountney seemed to play up the disparate elements that make up Verdi's score, so that the conspirators had a comic element to them, yet Mary Elizabeth Williams' Amelia and Roland Wood's Renato were treated entirely seriously. There was something positively light-hearted about Act One, with the concluding hymn being something of a romp (rather naughtily it struck me that sets and costumes might usefully be re-cycled as a rather good production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore). Sara Fulgoni's Ulrica was present from the outset, and seemed something of a presiding genius throughout the opera. Her scene in Act One was very much a brilliant theatrical performance, we saw her preparations during the scene's opening chorus sung by a group of women who were all catastrophically 'wounded' with swords, daggers and axes plunging out of them.

Act Two continued these themes, the serious and the comic, the Gothick cult of death, and the theatrical in a way which seemed somewhat confusing as to message, especially as Ulrica presided over the rites which were scaring Amelia. Not surprisingly, the masked ball which climaxes the opera had the courtiers costumed as skeletons, Day of the Dead style. But here, Riccardo was not present, he was sat to one side, and his reading of his book (which he had carried throughout the opera) seemed to take on great importance. Renato killed another, and when the catafalque returned Gwyn Hughes Jones stood to make Riccardo's farewell speech, yet died before the opera's opening scene could be recreated.

Un ballo in maschera is not an easy opera to stage, and I have not yet seen an entirely satisfactory production. Here Pountney seemed to be enjoying playing with the individual elements in the opera, without quite making clear what his overall plan was. Whereas in last year's production of La forza del destino [see my review] his use of Preziosilla to create a fate like figure binding the opera together worked superbly, here the results remained somewhat diffuse.

It was redeemed however by a superb musical performance.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Mary Elizabeth Williams, Jihoon Kim - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Mary Elizabeth Williams, Jihoon Kim - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
In his performance as Riccardo, Gwyn Hughes Jones united the disparate ideas of the pleasure-loving, theatrical, rather skittish ruler suddenly and seriously in love. Hughes Jones sang with an admirable sense of line and superb focus, and brought out the seriousness which underlay this rather frivolous man. You never doubted Riccardo's love for Amelia, and Hughes Jones duet with Mary Elizabeth Williams was one of the highlights of the evening. Without the need to have a stagey, long drawn-own dying, Hughes Jones was able to make Riccardo's final farewell rather noble and touching.

Having impressed last year as Leonora in La forza del destino, Mary Elizabeth Williams built on these impressions to create a powerful and moving performance as Amelia. Intense and fragile-seeming, Williams created a strong impression in Amelia's Act Two and Act Three arias, able to fine her tone right down yet also with the necessary underlying strength which the role needs too. Ideal sopranos for these Verdi roles are getting rarer, and we are lucking that WNO has found one who is able to combine emotion and power into a very moving performance. Williams seriousness of purpose and intensity, combined with Hughes Jones finely intelligent performance gave the opera a real sense of heart amongst the frivolity.

Roland Wood's Renato was also the least light-hearted of men. Serious of purpose amidst all the frivolity, this Renato was highly focused yet also rather intense so his scene at the opening of Act Three, with the now disgraced Amelia, was profoundly disturbing indeed. 'Eri tu' might have been beautifully sung, and it was indeed, but there was no disguising the fundamental nastiness of the man who could turn on his wife so quickly and so intensely.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Sara Fulgoni, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Roland Wood - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera (Act Three, scene one) -  Sara Fulgoni, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Roland Wood
Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Sara Fulgoni's Ulrica was highly theatrical and vividly performed. Though I found her lower register came over as rather too husky for my liking, there was no denying the vibrancy of her very physical performance. But quite what the character meant here, I was less certain, and Ulrica's appearance in subsequent acts seemed to imply she was some sort of presiding genius over the events, yet her key scene gave the impression that Ulrica's magic was pure hokum.

Julie Martin du Theil made a delightful Oscar, really rocking an outfit which made her seem a cross-gendered punk. She has a light, coloratura voice which she used with charm and theatrical presence in Oscar's solos. She brought a sense of wit and charm to the stage, along with nicely pinpoint technique.

The smaller roles were all very well taken, with Jihoon Kim and Tristan Hambleton as the conspirators Samuel and Tom, comic characters who nevertheless managed to make their performance in Act Two highly threatening as well. I like the way that their comic choreography in this act had the effect of attacking and disturbing Amelia, a neat combination of the comic and the vicious. Gareth Dalydd Morris was the judge, Jason Howard was Silvano and Andrew Irwin the servant.

The chorus of WNO was on terrific form, doing everything that Pountney required of them and combining a vivid theatrical presence with some fine and stirring singing. So that their contributions to the masked ball, as animated skeletons, was both musically strong and rather disquieting.

Carlo Rizzi drew a strong and subtle performance from the overture, never masking the 'musical comedy' oom-pah elements of the score and yet combining them in a fine grained way with the more emotional heart of the piece.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera (Act One finale) - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Whatever you thought of the ideas behind Pountney's production, there is no denying his ability to create a vivid theatrical experience and if you were able to put the 'whys and wherefores' to one side, this was a superbly vibrant evening of musical theatre, with high drama combined with theatrical nous and superb musical performances.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Black composers series 1974-1978 - CD review
  • In the hell of a small town: Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera Hagoromo (★★½) - CD review
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Engaging first thoughts: A reconstruction of Mozart and De Ponte's initial ideas for Cosi fan tutte (★★) - CD review
  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
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