The Welsh National Opera have every right to bask in the “uncorrupted glory” of their ‘Un ballo in maschera’. A production grounded in an almost monstrous majesty, the opera tells of love, power and politics, and of the tragic consequences when all three collide.
The curtain lifts on a sombre scene, in which darkness dominates. A huge black coffin lies centre stage, a black-clad figure lying atop it. Either side of the coffin stand crowds of mourners, too dressed in black. Immediately, death is established as a central character within the opera, with a central role, a role that exacerbates as the opera progresses, particularly when the Count Riccardo learns from a fortune teller that he is to be murdered, and at the hand of a friend.
Later, a group of conspirators will use the noun ‘death’ as a password, a code word by which they might recognise each other within the throngs of guests at a masked ball, a word that describes their very purpose, a word that becomes an overriding theme of this production. Instantly, the production proffers a funereal atmosphere, that hangs over the story, and its characters, for the remainder.
The production is based on the real life account of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot at a masked ball in 1792. Here, however, the masked ball becomes less like something you would expect from the period, and more like a Mexican Day of the Dead Festival. Guests at the ball wear floor-length garments, upon which is painted a skeleton, while skull masks cover their faces. Again here, death is central, and despite any glimmer of hope and happiness our two lovers – Count Riccardo and Amelia – may have had, the threat of death looms.
Despite the production’s impressive set pieces and intricate costumes, it actually has a very limited colour palette. Whites, blacks and reds – bold colours with powerful connotations. Black being the primary colour of the production, darkness shrouds these characters, a terrible, all-consuming shadow. At the masked ball, the costumes of the guests are black and white, stark colours in bitter opposition, even as the forces of good and bad do battle, struggling for power. Ironically, the colour red is often associated with two very different things – it can be a symbol of love, passion and desire, or a warning of danger, death and destruction. When Renato, husband to Amelia, sings of his bloodlust, the very word that combines the two, he expresses a desire – a desire to kill. We reach the point at which love and death coincide, the point at which the love between Riccardo and Amelia sparks a jealousy so powerful, so vengeance-inducing, it will ultimately lead to death.
The cast members of the Welsh National Opera are effortless in their performance of Verdi’s score, their masterful vocals and expression realising the passion and emotional depth contained within the music, their controlled and faultless vocals highlighting a superb range and ability.
Gywn Hughes Jones leads the cast as Count Riccardo, his powerful vocals a testament to the character’s standing and position. As with all those in power, he presents us with a man who inspires affection in many, as we see in the crowds of mourners at his ‘staged’ funeral scene at the opera’s opening. However, we also find a group of those who have become disillusioned with him, and plot to move against him – a group of men that move out from under his coffin, men ready to have a hand in his death.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is sublime as Amelia, the object of Riccardo’s desire. Undergoing an inner turmoil in loving a man other than her husband Renato, she desperately seeks help from Ulrica, a fortune teller. Ulrica tells her she must go to the field where the gallows sit, the place where condemnation and death meet. There, she must pick a herb, that will cure her of her love for Riccardo. However, when Riccardo follows her and passionately declares his love for her, Amelia is overcome, and finds herself requiting his love.
Through Williams’ breathtakingly nuanced performance, we find the depth of human emotion which instills in her captivated audience, not only a pity, but a profound respect, her dignified manner and vocal control stable and unyielding, even in the face of suspicion and prosecution.
Though powerful, there is a fragile delicacy to their relationship, which threatens to crack under the weight of their shame and remorse. Ameilia is bound by her duty, as wife to Renato, and mother to their son. Jones’ Riccardo feels a guilt in betraying his closest friend (Renato) in this way. However, recognising the beauty and necessity of their true love, he tells Amelia that, though everything else might die, indeed can die, his love for her will always remain – eternal and enduring.
Roland Wood gives a powerful performance as Renato, whose bitter jealousy blinds him to the faithful purity of his innocent wife, allowing him all to easily to join a group of conspirators, and land a fatal blow.
Sara Fulgoni is mysterious fortune teller Ulrica, whose cataclysmic prophecy spells doom for one of our characters. When we first meet her, she is separated from her clients by a partition, through which her ladies manipulate large hands set on the end of sticks, to poke and probe her clients, the cruel hands of fate reaching out. Master puppeteer, it is Ulrica who sets characters up for prominence and riches, or for their terrible demise.
Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, manservant to Riccardo, is also praiseworthy, her expressive performance providing the piece with what little room for comedy there can be in an opera of this solemnity.
The large set pieces, which are frequently moved around by members of the creative team, alternate between acting as the palatial setting of Riccardo’s dwelling, the streets of Sweden, and several other such locations. When looking more closely, however, it appears as though these walled sets feature small-scale theatres, constructed of stages with their lowered red velvet curtains, from behind which characters occasional appear. Rows of theatre-style seating are also utilised, wheeled on for our characters to sit upon. We are thus reminded of the theatricality of this opera, and of Verdi’ score, all of which fuses together to create an immense spectacle.
A fateful tale of love, death, vengeance and betrayal, this passionate production proves an operatic remedy that feeds the heart, and stirs the soul.