UN BALLO IN MASCHERA
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019
Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama. It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly. Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations. They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.
Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him. The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.
As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor. No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role. As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect. Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!
As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.
Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.
While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery. Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.
It’s a banquet for the ears. The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely. On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable. I had a ball!