When censors forbade the onstage depiction of regicide, Verdi was forced to relocate his 1859 Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) away from the court of Sweden’s Gustavus III, transferring the tale to 19th-century Massachusetts.
Yet the opera’s exploration of love, betrayal, power, abuse and murder is no less compelling for that and – as David Pountney’s darkly satirical new production for Welsh National Opera underlines – it’s as relevant to Boston as to Sweden and, by implication, anywhere, any time.
Indeed, Pountney shows by spectacular extension of Verdi’s masquerade-within-a-masquerade conceit how Un Ballo questions aspects of subterfuge, deception, responsibility and fate – and where these tragicomically collide within the tangled hierarchies of personal and political power.
While bringing home the realities at stake, Verdi’s fantastical plot suggests that events are supernaturally directed by the fortune-teller Ulrika, who foretells Riccardo’s doom at the start. Pountney takes that idea further and switches agency to Riccardo himself, casting him as a stage director who is overseeing a performance.
And what a performance it is! Sumptuously gothic with black and blood-red visuals from set and costume designers Raimund Bauer and Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, zombie followers of Ulrika (Sara Fulgoni, on stage throughout) vie with pirates and highwaymen as the masked ball finale becomes a skeleton-garbed danse macabre.
The entire show is a Day of the Dead-inspired, Totentanz celebration, as proscenium arches adroitly swivel and re-angle, splitting the stage to reveal a series of theatres-within-theatres. There is heartrending emotion, too, in the playing-out of painfully domestic drama.
A superb cast, WNO chorus and orchestra relish the occasion, conducted with Verdian eloquence by Carlo Rizzi and led by a dignified Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams). She is matched in vocal passion and dexterity by Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) – who leaps from a coffin at the start, and survives (no thanks to Julie Martin du Theil’s excellent Oscar) to bow at the end with his murderer, Renato (a furiously implacable Roland Wood).
In real life, Gustavus was a lover of theatre. In real life, Pountney’s WNO contract will expire without renewal this summer. An internationally distinguished director-librettist with opera in his bones, Wales will be immeasurably the poorer for his loss.