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Un Ballo in Maschera review at Opera Holland Park, London – ‘a visual feast’

Opera Holland Park's Un Ballo in Maschera. Photo; Tristram Kenton
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Political drama or romantic tragedy? Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera has elements of both with its plot about the assassination of the 18th-century Swedish king Gustav III during a masked ball.

With such a daring subject, the opera’s genesis was turbulent and Verdi and his librettist battled continuously with the Italian censors. In 1858, as rehearsals began, the attempted assassination of Napoleon III in France drove the censors to forbid the opera altogether, requiring more changes including a bizarre change of setting to Boston.

Today, Un Ballo is generally returned to its Swedish origins, but shifting the setting to 1930s Italy works surprisingly well in Opera Holland Park’s enjoyable new production.

The trench coat-wearing political plotters slink around the ingenious, moveable wall at the centre of the set, while the climactic ball scene is a visual feast of glittery fancy dress.

As Gustavo, nobly repressing his love for his best friend’s wife Amelia, Matteo Lippi is commanding, confidently handling the most demanding vocal challenges. The romantic trio is rounded out by solid performances by George von Bergen as Anckarström and Anne Sophie Duprels as Amelia, especially in the anguished Morrò, Ma Prima in Grazia, where she is sympathetically accompanied by a cello soloist from the City of London Sinfonia.

But it is two supporting roles that linger in the mind, first, Rosalind Plowright as the fortune-teller Madame Arvidson who prophesies Gustavo’s death. In her shimmering purple gown and Philip Treacy-like hat, Plowright stalks the stage like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and is clearly having a splendid time. The second scene-stealer is Alison Langer, as Gustavo’s servant Oscar. Langer gives the role a Cherubino-like sparkle, adding a welcome lightness to Verdi’s dark story.

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Enjoyable new production of Verdi's political potboiler relocated to 1930s Italy