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Un ballo in maschera

Guiseppe Verdi
Welsh National Opera
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

As Artistic Director David Pountney nears the end of his ground-breaking tenure, his spring season focuses on monarchy and the conflict between private passion and public persona with Un ballo in maschera, the second of WNO’s Verdi’s Trilogy (co-produced with Oper der Stadt Bonn and which started with La forza del destino last year and concludes with Les Vêpres siciliennes in 2020) charting the downfall of Gustavus III as a play-within-a-play.

Raimund Bauer’s set consists of sumptuous red velvet theatre curtaining, rows of plush seating and lofty door and proscenium-filled blocks requiring a host of stage hands to leap on stage to push into place, ever reminding the audience that this is just a show.

Verdi’s score is surprisingly bright and boisterous—complementing portrayal of the King of Sweden as a practical joker directing operations, book in hand—but there is drama and anguish aplenty as requited love, Satanic rites, conspiracy and doom-mongering prevail. Pountney makes the absolute most of the toweringly Gothic, dark and macabre piece with blood red and black costuming, lighting and set as the hedonistic monarch’s passion proves the catalyst for (spoiler alert) murder.

Pacey and dramatic, mournful and spirited by turns, Gareth Jones’s firm grip on the baton elicits apposite light and shade from the WNO Orchestra with Katherine Thomas’s harp providing poignancy and depth.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is outstanding as Amelia. Her aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia is exquisite and the midnight gallows-place duet with the mellifluous Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo superb as the wolf-headed conspirators circle and mock and the king’s best friend discovers his perfidy.

Baritone Roland Wood brings gravitas as Renato but on press night his chest infection put Phillip Rhodes on the spot in the wings to step up with an outstanding voice-over performance.

Sara Fulgoni’s fine mezzo was somewhat drowned—perhaps the same microphone affliction that gave sibilance to the opening chorus—as she magnificently strutted her stuff as soothsayer with a voodoo doll-stabbing posse in thrall while new Associate Artist (supported by the Sor John Moores Award the WNO Endowment Fund and a Chris Ball Bursary) Harriet Eyley makes a sassy, leather-clad Oscar rising to his / her master’s high jinks and pleading for clemency for the exiled fortune-teller.

Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costuming is lavish, despite being confined to a black / white / red / gold palette, with the masked ball converted to a stunning spectacle of bopping skeletons as the tremendous WNO Chorus is again unleashed in clunky dance but fine voice.

Karen Bussell