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Un ballo in maschera, Royal Opera House, London — review
From the Financial Times of Sun, 21 Dec 2014 21:12:15 GMT
Marianne Cornetti, centre, in ‘Un ballo in maschera’©Catherine Ashmore

Marianne Cornetti, centre, in ‘Un ballo in maschera’

As 2014 comes to a close, here is one last nod to the first world war. It might seem impossible to make any connection between the war and Verdi’s opera, but Katharina Thoma’s new production soldiers on regardless, determined to pursue a scenario that turns the assassination of a governor in Boston at the end of the 17th century into Sarajevo, 1914.

Of all Verdi’s middle-period operas, Un ballo in maschera is the trickiest to bring off. The Royal Opera’s last production was ugly and obtuse. Now it has found a replacement that is painfully feeble, despite having three singers potentially as well suited to the principal roles as any around today.

It would be easy to sit through the performance and come out with no idea of what Thoma has been trying to say. The only idea she puts across with any force is that death is stalking these characters. The statues in the graveyard come to life. The fortune-teller Ulrica has become a sinister Madame Arcati figure, hosting a Gothic-themed ladies’ evening. There is no logic to any of it — just a ragbag of directorial whims, many of them ineptly executed.

Even the love triangle at the heart of the opera feels uninvolving. Joseph Calleja does a nice line in youthful insouciance, singing with plenty of light and shade, though it is hard to see his Riccardo as representative of the old aristocracy (even Pavarotti, bless him, managed to cut a more regal figure). Liudmyla Monastyrska brings lots of voice and an impressively rock-sure technique to Amelia, though the absence of Latin passion in the sound does matter. As Renato, Dmitri Hvorostovsky phrases broadly and summons his reserves to keep up with the big voices around him. Serena Gamberoni is an uncharismatic Oscar, Marianne Cornetti a scorching, all-Italian Ulrica.

It might have helped if the conductor, Daniel Oren, could have found the pulse that makes Verdi’s score tick. As it is, the climactic masked ball completely failed to glitter, either musically or visually with its drab design and animal-head costumes. If I were Thoma, I would have come on for the curtain-calls in disguise myself.

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