LONDON: Un Ballo in Maschera
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Un Ballo in Maschera

Royal Opera House

In Review Royal Opera Ballo in Maschera hdl 315
Monastyrska and Calleja, Amelia and Riccardo in London
© Royal Opera House/Catherine Ashmore 2015

German director Katharina Thoma had worked just once before in the U.K. prior to her new Ballo in Maschera opening at the Royal Opera House on December 18; in May 2013, she staged an Ariadne auf Naxos for Glyndebourne that was generally found to be less than satisfactory. The new Covent Garden Ballo replaced a version by Italian film-director Mario Martone that was not particularly admired; even so, Thoma’s new effort seemed scarcely likely to become a regular house favorite in its stead.

Verdi, as is well known, was forced to switch the original and partially historical Swedish setting of his drama to the somewhat less plausible location of seventeenth-century Boston. The Boston names were retained in Thoma’s staging, but, courtesy of designers Soutra Gilmour (sets) and Irina Bartels (costumes), we were now at the center of the Austro–Hungarian Empire in its declining years, and more especially in the lead-up to another and rather more consequential assassination — the one that took place in Sarajevo in 1914, which sent the world to war. 

Thoma, however, drew nothing of material substance from this alteration: Gilmour’s dour and insufficiently varied sets and Bartels’s well-observed period costumes merely added a gloomy but essentially decorative Habsburg heaviness to the piece. And instead of concentrating on the quality and focus of the individual acting performances, which were mostly indifferent, or on the central characters’ relationships, which were at most broad-brushstroke in their fuzziness, the director seemed to have spent her time largely on irrelevancies. 

The basic set appeared to be the ornate burial vault of a noble family, littered with the kind of monuments that are decorated with carved human figures; later on, these figures unwrapped themselves and took on lives of their own, effectively becoming ghosts wandering around with little else to do but to look mournful. Ulrica had a comic-grotesque servant (uncredited) whose outstretched hand she employed as an ashtray; indeed, her entire scene had a kind of wacky Addams Family look to it. Most surprising, when Oscar came to Renato’s house to deliver an invitation to the masked ball, he took time off to dally with the maid in a side-room in what was specifically represented as a sexual seduction. None of this seemed to have much to do with what is one of the most straightforward of Verdi’s narratives.

Under conductor Daniel Oren’s direction, the accent was mainly on loud, un-nuanced vocalism. At least a partial exception must be made for Joseph Calleja, whose healthy tenorial ring as Riccardo occasionally took on more subtle tones but was otherwise mostly a display of the sheer splendor of his full tone. Similarly, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang Renato with complete authority and often very loudly indeed, while the moments in the score at which something less ebullient was needed were seemingly lost on him. The Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s fearless attack and sheer confidence throughout were undeniable assets, even if she proved an impassive actress in a role that requires passionate engagement. 

The bright, fizzy soprano of Italian coloratura Serena Gamberoni helped her create a spirited Oscar in what was certainly the most successful of the evening’s portrayals from a dramatic point of view. Marianne Cornetti’s convincing lower register helped her access all the notes in Ulrica’s part with a satisfyingly forceful impact, and she was distinctly game in her less than entirely serious characterization. Oren’s conducting possessed an element of Verdian color and momentum, though there were far too many lapses of ensemble. spacer 



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