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Un Ballo in Maschera review at Royal Opera House London

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The astonishing, irrepressible Charles Mackerras is celebrating his 80th birthday conducting Verdi’s impassioned, enigmatic masterpiece exploring love, loyalty, duty, betrayal, the masks individuals consciously, or unconsciously, assume to cope with emotional and public dilemmas.

He conducts an incandescent reading remarkable for its textural clarity, its rhythmic drive, with tempos finely integrated to sustain the score’s dramatic architecture. Caringly judged dynamics assist singers to mould and give meaning to vocal lines. Ballo’s novel and exhilarating blend of comedy and tragedy is held in perfect balance. Marvellous!

Sadly, the revival of Mario Martone’s botched staging fails to live up to Sir Charles’ visionary conducting. Martone updates the Boston version, never satisfactory, to the Civil War period, though no one would guess from Sergio Tramonti’s disparate settings, ranging from the skimpy to the emptily spectacular.

Stagecraft is primitive, as in the opening scene of Act III. Where it takes place is uncertain, the cast often handle props without motivation, while furniture-shifting flunkies disrupt the concluding quintet.

The excellent cast is left to create character on the hoof. Result? Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Renato crudely chews the scenery during ‘Eri tu’ and thereafter, Robert Gleadow hams it as the conspirator Samuel. Stephanie Blythe, singing superbly, barely rescues Ulrica from the nondescript. Patrizia Biccire can do little with the page Oscar.

However, Richard Margison and Nina Stemme bring a third dimension to Riccardo and Amelia. And all the principals sing Verdi’s soaring melodies with firm centred tone and warm phrasing. Musically the evening is a triumph.

Production Information

Royal Opera House, London, November 17, 21, 25, 29, December 3, 7 10, 13, 16

Composer
Giuseppe Verdi
Director
Mario Martone
Producer
Royal Opera House
Cast includes
Richard Margison, Nina Stemme, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Stephanie Blythe
Running time
3hrs 20mins
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