Un ballo in maschera

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. (more…)