Un Ballo in Maschera review – ingenious Verdi update is beautifully sung

Holland Park theatre, London
Rodula Gaitanou’s finely sung and acted production reimagines Verdi’s opera as a noir-ish thriller with supernatural overtones

The second production of Opera Holland Park’s season is an ingenious staging by Rodula Gaitanou of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Updating the work to the 1940s, Gaitanou reimagines it as a noir-ish thriller with supernatural overtones, which, despite occasional eccentricities, carefully sustains the opera’s ambiguous mood of tragedy, irony, passion and wit.

It opens in a fencing school, where the ceremonies of practice thinly disguise underlying violence, and Gustavo (Matteo Lippi) and his would-be assassins are initially indistinguishable amid the thrusts and parries of swordplay. Amelia (Anne-Sophie Duprels) has become an artist and sculptor, working on a bust of Lippi, while fending off the attentions he piles on her when her husband Anckarström’s (George von Bergen) back is turned. Her artwork, however, soon becomes a tacit reminder of the metaphysical forces that control the protagonists’ lives, since we later discover a portrait of Rosalind Plowright’s self-dramatising Arvidson on an easel in the Anckarströms’ house.

Gaitanou’s deftness of touch falters a little in act two, however, which she sets not at the foot of the public gallows but in a creepy-looking hospital where Amelia has come for drug treatment in the hope of purging her unwanted feelings for Gustavo. It is splendidly sinister, but the medical imagery doesn’t quite square with the charnel-house atmosphere (“where crime and death are coupled”, as the libretto puts it) that Verdi was seeking here.

The production is beautifully acted and sung. Lippi, warm and generous of tone, finely captures Gustavo’s charm, humour and fecklessness. Duprels sings with a formidable intensity that compensates for the occasional moment of shrillness in her upper registers. Von Bergen, meanwhile, delivers an entirely convincing portrait of a mild-mannered man slowly turning to violence after being broken by suspicions of his wife’s adultery. Plowright’s Arvidson, got up like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, is all frayed majesty and hauteur, while Alison Langer makes a fine Oscar, with her silvery tone and precise coloratura. Matthew Kofi Waldren, meanwhile, conducts with passion and sensitivity. The choral singing is outstanding.

• In rep at Holland Park theatre, London, until 29 June.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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