Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera has received much critical acclaim since its original performance in 1859 and has become one of his greatest known works. Opera North’s current production is their first staging of this opera and they have done it with great success. This Italian opera, pervaded by French influence, has undergone many changes since its conception. At its heart and to the credit of Opera North, it is a political commentary and tragedy. It should not be taken for granted that for over a century its setting, character names and entire historical relevance were regularly rendered non-sensical; it had to conform to Italian censorship imposed by the monarchy. Some performances still maintain the censored libretto and setting, although this arguably lessens the quality of the opera. Verdi’s demands and clearly documented dissatisfaction with the enforced censorship are ignored in these cases. Opera North’s production is faithful to the unaltered original and in doing so the stakes of the plot are much more apparent. As the King, his death would affect everyone and lead to such instability which as a minor figure in Boston (his altered persona) would be impossible.
Hannah Clark does astounding work as the set and costume designer. The rising of the curtain revealed a grey and light room which was simple and clinical. Both beautiful and sterile, it was the perfect companion to the music which moves between light comedy and darkness. The oppressive masculine presence which began to fill the stage was overwhelming. The opera chorus dressed in grey and light browns made the audience immediately uncomfortable, the military dress highlighting the warnings of an assassination. The breeches role of Oscar, filled by Tereza Gevorgyan, was admirable. Her Shakespearean Puck-like narration was humorous and light spirited, taking special delight in explaining Ulrica’s ‘pact with Lucifer’. Present throughout most of the play except the climax in which Gustavo is discovered with Amelia, she was a particularly talented member of the cast. Her final phrases in the ending number soaring high and clean above the chorus.
French elements of this intrinsically Italian opera were clear, perhaps a nod to the inspiration for Verdi’s opera. The female ensemble, gathered around Ulrica in a Parisian-style deep red velvet room created a heavy atmosphere leading to the premonitions of death. Verdi asked for the libretto to be based upon the earlier work of Eugene Scribe, a French librettist. Scribe was the playwright who added the characters of Amelie and Oscar to add to the historical events. In modern day, the lifting of the plot and the occasional straight translation of his libretto would be copyright infringement.
The costume choice at the ball of grey and deep red brought the two worlds of men and women together, previously seen in their grey clinical and seductive red worlds. Only the mishap with the curtains on set was a shame. After the interval, the curtains were lowered but one side caused problems leading to three large piles of curtains on stage which should have disappeared. There were multiple opportunities to remove the obstruction yet they remained on stage for the duration of the final act. Fortunately, a cast member reduced the size of the pile, tucking them aside part way through but the remains were a shame as it distracted from the excellent set and overall performance.
Verdi’s music was impressive and contrasting, although one feels sorry for the harpist who had to play endless arpeggiated triplets, a common feature in Verdi! Rafael Rojas admirably played the complex character of Gustavo. Opera North’s production is a great one to see, featuring characters with complex motives. Is the audience on Gustavo’s side? He is innocent in the sense of not engaging with Amelia romantically, yet his declaration of love is dangerous. His withdrawal seemed more prompted by the appearance of her husband than his own morals leading the audience to question what may have happened without the interruption. Despite this, his death scene did seem to absolve him of guilt and allowed the audience to accept his redemption. A fantastic performance by Rafael Rojas.
Un Ballo in Maschera continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until the 24th of March at the Leeds Grand Theatre.