This production represents Opera Holland Park at its best in making a fully persuasive case for an opera that often fails to convince entirely when staged despite its many individual musical glories.
Thanks to pressures from the censor in Naples the original historical circumstances of the plot were blurred by relocating the assassination of a king of Sweden at a masked ball. What does not change is Verdi’s tactical pivot from political intrigue to personal taboos and dilemmas in which the king’s best friend ends up as his killer thanks to his royal master’s evident partiality for friend’s wife. There are great opportunities for the expression of strong emotions of vengeance, guilt, anger and passionate declarations of love. And for good measure, Verdi frames it with a spectacular gothic scene for a fortune-teller who anticipates the tragedy and a ballroom finale that glitters and screws up the tension before the final act of retributive violence.
Sets of wooden panelling by takis offer great flexibility and variety on a stage that is notoriously hard to fill: there is scope for conspiracy and intimacy and also for grand public drama. Director Rodula Gaitanou moves the large blocks of singers around with great care and elicits very plausible acting from all the principals. She has relocated the action in the fedora and raincoat world of Art Deco gangsterdom, which feels right for a piece with a continuously unsettling and brooding musical atmosphere. The costumes, again by takis, are suitably spectacular in the ballroom but unobtrusively restrained elsewhere except in the quite wonderful outfit for the suitably imposing Rosalind Plowright whose ‘Ace of Spades’ headdress was a true scene-stealer. The whole is moved along with brisk yet characterful efficiency by OHP regular Matthew Waldren, who had to contend with the thunderous noises-off of a torrential downpour and yet dared to produce some very delicate shadows and spooky shivers from the players of the City of London Sinfonia.
Both lead roles were taken with assurance and skill. As Gustavo, Matteo Lippi had an easy command of the heroic tenor register the part demands. He is an unusual operatic monarch in the sense that the character clearly does not feel the clash between duty and passion that is conventional – in fact, he is another version of the Duke in ‘Rigoletto’. But his end had pathos and Lippi found much more humour than usual as well. The guilt of passion and the difficulty of knowing what best to do about it was much more the forte of Anne-Sophie Duprels, an OHP regular. She had all the romantic ardour needed for the role, but also an acute plaintive sense of the unreasonable humiliations to which she is subjected by the men who are supposed to have her best interests at heart. In her solo arias and in duet she was very affecting and credible in portraying that common situation in Verdi of a woman placed in an impossible situation as much through the unreasonable social conventions of the time as by the plot.
The secondary roles were equally filled with luxury casting. Ankerström, the deceived friend and vengeful husband, was performed by George von Bergen. This role is lightly sketched and a bit two-dimensional in comparison with the others, but von Bergen did a very good job with the demanding baritone aria that comes near the end and got a deserved ovation for his delivery. Alison Langer played the ‘travesty’ role of the king’s page, Oscar, whose character – and indeed music – is invested with a light comedic quality that deliberately contrasts with the heavier tones elsewhere. She played this to perfection in timing, poise and acting: in fact, you could almost kid yourself you were watching some lost numbers by Gilbert and Sullivan. Rosalind Plowright, just after her seventieth birthday, showed her evergreen star-quality as Madame Arvidson, the portentous foreteller of doom.
All in all, this production could not be bettered and is essential viewing in this year’s summer season of opera in London.
- Music by Giuseppe Verdi
- Libretto by Antonio Somma, after Eugene Scribe
- Director: Rodula Gaitanou
- Conductor: Matthew Waldren
- Leading Performers: George von Bergen, Anne-Sophie Duprels, Alison Langer, Matteo Lippi, Rosalind Plowright
- Opera Holland Park
- Until 29th June 2019