Giuseppe Verdi often fell foul of the censors, and he was well aware that an opera about the assassination of a popular Swedish monarch was pretty likely to cause concern. So the history of A Masked Ball is a messy one, and it was eventually cleared for performance only when Verdi re-located the story to America. David Pountney has brought it back to Sweden via Transylvania and the opera has survived the journey home very well. It’s a full-blooded in-your-face production which will not delight everyone, but it is blessed with some of the finest singing I have heard at WNO and it makes an enormous impression.
Riccardo is the popular but spendthrift monarch of Sweden. He is in love with Amelia, the wife of Renato, his adviser and loyal friend. There are malcontents plotting against Riccardo – Renato, and Oscar the king’s young page, warn him to be wary. By eavesdropping at the den of Ulrica, a fortune teller, Riccardo discovers that Amelia loves someone other than her husband. He follows her to a remote and spooky graveyard where she has gone to pick a rare herb and she admits that it is Riccardo she loves. Renato discovers their guilty secret and instantly decides to join the conspiracy intending to murder the king. There is a masked ball arranged for the next day.
This is not an opera that demands subtlety and Pountney and his design team, Raimund Bauer and Marie-Jeanne Lecca, certainly don’t aim for that. Instead we get full-on Victorian Gothic – red and black and leather with a stage full of skeletons for the final scene – shades of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller!’ But given the libretto’s interest in the occult, and in the role of blind fate in determining life-changing events, the design matches the story well enough.
But the real glory of this production is in some very fine performances. As Amelia, Mary Elizabeth Williams is on top form and her arias of forbidden love and despair in the third act are sublime. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo is absolutely her equal as the monarch tormented by a passion that he knows may destroy the trust of his closest confidant – his is a tenor voice of rare power and passion and he more than lives up to the demands of the composer. Renato is not such a rewarding role, so it is to Roland Wood’s eternal credit that he provides the character of friend betrayed and husband tormented by jealousy with such conviction and a ringing baritone voice. Sara Fulgoni has a whale of a time as the witchy Ulrica, and special praise is due for Swiss newcomer Julie Martin du Theil who is a swashbuckling Oscar, singing with style and striking the right piratical poses in her black leather.
I have some reservations about the production. Whilst it is visually very striking, the strange scenic shifts are sometimes distracting and the enormous movable panels – set on one side with red curtains and on the other with multiple images of theatre stages – are wheeled around by technicians who sometimes seem a bit unaware of the chorus members trying to get out of their way. And the plot twist that Pountney brings to the final scene of the opera is clever but unconvincing.
Carlo Rizzi, the former musical director of WNO, is a proper Verdi expert and makes a welcome return to conduct this great Italian opera with a real feel for the relentless series of dramatic climaxes. Even in masks and skeleton suits, the chorus make the most of the great ensemble pieces and the orchestra, less encumbered, wallows in the lush orchestral textures. This opera has a story that teeters on the edge of absurdity, but with visual flair and superb singing, the WNO has another hit on their hands.
- By Giuseppe Verdi
- Directed by David Pountney
- Libretto by Antonio Somma
- Conducted by Carlo Rizzi
- Performers include: Gwyn Hughes Jones, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Roland Wood, Sara Fulgoni
- Wales Millennium Centre
- Until 24 April 2019, at various venues