Bland Ballo

A monument at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Upheaval seems to be baked into Verdi’s 1859 opera Un ballo in maschera: it was begun as a tale about a Swedish king, shifted briefly (in conception) to Germany, then finally premiered as featuring colonial Boston. Now Katharina Thoma has shifted it to pre-First World War Austria-Hungary for Covent Garden’s new production. The assassination of Riccardo at the end is seemingly intended to evoke the spirit of events on the town hall steps in Sarajevo in June 1914.

Not that it matters, since this rather hammy melodrama streamrollers forth, paying no heed to the new window-dressing. Outer acts appear to look backward to the clunkier operations of Il Trovatore or Nabucco, whilst the central act in the ‘spooky’ graveyard has more of the developed, conversational writing on which Verdi’s reputation is more justly based. Picking up on the spooky graveyard theme, not to mention the supernatural invocations of fortune-teller Ulrica, Thoma has opted for an omnipresent pseudo-Gothic décor (minus the pointed arches, incidentally). When funerary monuments are not required, the cloisters and weighty doorframes are rearranged to form libraries, bedrooms, etc., but in essence most of the action, loosely directed, takes place in a wide open space in the middle of the stage. The graveyard scene did have some quite effective business with statuary coming to life to caress the distressed Amelia. Otherwise not particularly engaging, but I suppose not too offensive either. Given Covent Garden’s recent run of flirting with more interventionist directorial ideas, it’s at least a more benign form of failure for a new production.

So, we look to the musical to redeem the visual, and to a certain extent it did: there was some very engaging singing. Liudmyla Monastyrska was adding Amelia to her Covent Garden Verdi roles, following Abigaille, Aida and Lady Macbeth. The qualities of her voice have been generally well-observed: ample, secure, beautiful tone whether at ringing forte or brought down to a gorgeous pianissimo. True, she is not one of the world’s natural actresses, and could make a bit more of the text, but it is a sound to revel in. As Riccardo, Joseph Calleja was not dissimilar, constantly enjoyable to listen to, but perhaps missing some dramatic bite. Hvorostovsky was Renato, accomplished if a little bland, sounding somewhat dry of tone and, in some passages, with a rather distracting, rasping sound with each breath he took. Lauren Fagan was a sparky Oscar, projecting a bright warm sound. Finally, I confess a soft spot for Marianne Cornetti as a slightly blowsy Ulrica, but using a commanding chest voice to effectively marshal the supernatural forces in Thoma’s rather messy séance scene in Act 1. Smaller roles were all effectively despatched in similar grand manner.

Musical problems largely stemmed from Daniel Oren in the pit. He does something strange to the Royal Opera House orchestra, who played tremendously well in the style that had been imposed on them: a rather percussive old-school ‘pit band’ sound, all staccato chords and clipped, brassy climaxes. There was something slightly four-square and pedestrian about too much of it, the sculpting of individual phrases not being particularly apparent, which made it all the more odd that there were a couple of co-ordination problems. This lack of warmth and phrasing was especially noticeable in “Pappano’s house” where he has given so many beautifully nuanced Verdi performances. At curtain call, there appeared a rather cold relationship between Oren and orchestra, who didn’t seem too responsive to his encouragement for sections to take their applause. By the time he and the principals on stage were taking their second bow, the orchestra had all but deserted the pit. Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but it didn’t seem a warm partnership.

We now look forward to another new production, due to open next week: David McVicar’s Andrea Chénier. Over-baked interventionist flop versus bland window-dressing: surely if anyone can steer Covent Garden to something in the happy medium – fresh, innovative, intelligent, well-directed – it’s him. Keep everything crossed.

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