Monday 10 June 2019

A finely balanced cast in Opera Holland Park's 1930s setting for Verdi's Un ballo in maschera

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi, Alison Langer - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi, Alison Langer - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi, George von Bergen, Rosalind Plowright, Alison Langer, dir: Rodula Gaitanou, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Matthew Kofi Waldren; Opera Holland Park Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Strong individual performances in a staging which does not quite have the right impact

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Opera Holland Park's second opera of the season was Verdi's Un ballo un maschera in a production by Rodula Gaitanou with designs by Takis which opened on Saturday 8 June 2019. Matteo Lippi was Gustavo, with Anne Sophie Duprels as Amelia, George von Bergen as Anckarström, Rosalind Plowright as Madame Arvidson, Alison Langer as Oscar, Benjamin Bevan as Ribbing and John Savournin as Horn. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Despite the use of the Swedish names for the characters Gaitanou's production was relatively unspecific in its location. Re-set to the 1930s,  Takis' sets were based around wooden panelling which could be moved flexibly, though the stage was rarely fully opened out and most of the scenes were played out on a deliberately restricted stage with the wooden backdrop presumably helping the auditorium's tricky acoustics. The period setting gave the opportunity for turning Madame Arvidson (Rosalind Plowright) into a stylish society medium, and meant that Anne Sophie Duprels' Amelia was less passive and had rather more gumption than in many portrayals. But the setting did not seem to specifically add to the the opera's dramaturgy, and significantly weakened it in one way as there was little feel of the gothic.

This gothic element plays an important part in Verdi's opera, but it is something that modern day stagings have difficulty getting right, contemporary audiences' relationship to the gothic is very different to those in Verdi's time. Gaitanou's staging of Madame Arvidson's scene was enormously effective, but it lacked the transgressive feel, the sense of going out of the bounds of normal society. And Act Two was set in a hospital which, despite some dead bodies and alarming shadows, just does not have the same sense of desperation as the original instructions for Amelia to pick the herb in the shadow of the gallows. Functionally Act Two worked pretty well, but it lacked the atmosphere necessary to bring this scene off.

That said, I have to confess that I have yet to see an entirely satisfactory production of Un ballo in maschera and wonder whether David Alden's 1980s gothic fantasy at English National Opera might have come closest. Certainly recently directors have struggled to make the piece work.

At Opera Holland Park the strength of the casting meant that we overlooked any weakness in the staging, and the combination of Matteo Lippi, Anne Sophe Duprels, Rosalind Plowright and George van Bergen really held our attention.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - George von Bergen, Matteo Lippi
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Matteo Lippi, who sang in OHP's 2017 production of Puccini's La Rondine [see my review], brought superb maturity and a fully rounded sense of character to the role of Gustavo. This was a strong, well integrated performance and Lippi's lithe yet flexible voice was shown to its best advantage. The character of Gustavo can seem somewhat skittish, but Lippi gave a well anchored and sympathetic performance, someone struggling with his emotions. His scene with Anne Sophie Duprels' Amelia in Act Two was perhaps powerful rather than incendiary, yet by the end of the evening I found I rather admired this man.

Anne Sophie Duprels is an OHP regular, singing a wide variety of roles. She is not a conventional Verdi soprano, bu who is nowadays? However brings commitment and style to whatever she does. This was a beautifully convincing and incrediby detailed portrayal of a woman under stress (something Duprels does superbly well, witness her Janacek performances at OHP), yet still capable and still acting on her own. Duprels voice has a fragile quality which meant that Verdi's line sometimes took on a tremulous feel which lent anxiety to the character, but there is strength underneath which meant we had power in the key moments.

Frankly, Anckarström is a bit of a shit; for the first half of the opera he is conventional to the point of boredom and then when he catches his wife in a somewhat dodgy situation he explodes, assumes the worst and comes over the jealous tyrant. George von Bergen managed to hold the pieces together, a decent man snapping, centred round a very fine performance indeed of 'Eri tu' as part of the highly tense scenes at the opening of Act Three.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Rosalind Plowright - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Rosalind Plowright
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Madame Arvidson is a gift of a role, you have one scene only but it is crucial dramatically and full of the sort of colour and movement that Verdi was so good at. Rosalind Plowright celebrated her 70th birthday recently (whilst singing the Countess de Coigny in Giordano's Andrea Chenier at Covent Garden), yet her performance as Madame Arvidson showed that she is capable of far more than just the odd celebrity guest appearance. She mined her strong lower register and her own striking looks (Plowright is tall and slim) to vivid effect, helped by a striking head dress and a cigarette holder. It was a wonderful performance, and vividly filled the rather boring waiting-room like space that did duty for her sinister dwelling.

The page Oscar skitters through Un ballo in maschera in a way which deliberately brings a lighter touch that contrasts with the darker elements in the opera. Yet there is no doubt of Oscar's strong feelings for his master, and I have seen productions where this is moved into the realms of exploring the historical King Gustavo's homosexuality. Here, Rodula Gaitanou took a rather different tack. Alison Langer's Oscar was very visibly a woman; whilst she was dressed in trousers and waistcoat, the trousers were of a very female cut and the waiscoat was a bustier, with shoes and hair-do to match. Was this a feminine man, a woman or what? It was never made clear, but thankfully Langer grasped all the opportunities that the role brought her. She impressed last year as Violetta in OHP's young artist performance of Verdi's La traviata [see my review], and she once again made a strong impression with her combination of crack coloratura and effortless charm, along with a good measure of humour.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Anne Sophie Duprels
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
If the portrayal of Oscar brought an element of lightness to the production, the conspirators Ribbing and Horn (Benjamin Bevan and John Savournin) were taken entirely seriously. Bevan and Savournin brought something delightfully seedy to the two characters, creating a serious undertone which helped enormously their scene with George von Bergen's Anckarström at the opening of Act Three. The other smaller roles were well cast with Ross Ramgobin as an enthusiastic Cristiano, the sailor in the scene with Madame Arvidson, Mike Bradley as a servant and Ian Massa-Harris as a judge (here a clergyman).

Takis' designs gave the chorus some cracking costumes for the masked ball itself, and the performers were clearly having a lot of fun. But elsewhere they made a fine turn as threatening conspirators and even, in the opera's opening scene, fencing with each other.

In the pit, Matthew Kofi Waldren took an impulsive and propulsive view of the score, keeping things moving and making the drama count. But he knows when to relax too, and he and the City of London Sinfonia, which was on fine form, made plenty of space for the singers where necessary.

Making any production of Un ballo in maschera work is a big challenge, and one to which few productions really rise. But OHP brought a variety of creditable elements to their staging, with some strong individual performances making the evening really memorable.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Un ballo in maschera is OHP's 2019 young artists performance when, on 28 June 2019, Nadine Benjamin and Adriano Graziani as Amelia and Gustavo, will be joined by Jack Holten, Claire Lees, Georgia Mae Bishop (who sings The Mother in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019), Blaise Malaba, Tom Mole, and Samuel Oram, directed by Rachel Hewer (who hails from my home town of Grimsby) and conducted by Sonia Ben-Santamaria.

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