A Slice of Operatic Cake 7: Un Ballo in Maschera
When I started my music degree, I never would have believed that I could be excited about a new season of operas. Yet, here I am - Opera North has succeeded in creating exciting performances and unique opportunities which seem to appeal in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people. After last season's vast array of short but extremely powerful and often surprising operas, staged extremely creatively, this season of 'Fatal Passions' seems to go down a more traditional route. All three operas this season are sung in their original Italian, and all three are well known pieces, two of which have been staged at Opera North before.
Verdi's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' opened tonight (03/02) to an excited audience. This opera, it has to be said, is the one I know least about of the three. It is also Opera North's only new production of the season. From the beginning, this did feel like a more traditional take on a more traditional opera than we've seen from Opera North for a while, however Hannah Clark's set and costume design soon began to reveal hidden depths to the piece. We begin with an almost superficial palette of off-whites as political schemes begin to unfold, and as the drama unfolds, shades of red fill the stage. We descend into the characters' emotions and motivations as we are immersed deeper and deeper into colour, only to re-emerge after Act 2, slowly adding layer upon layer of superficiality as dark motivations begin to cloud judgements. This was all an absolute stroke of genius. Thomas C. Hase's lighting design was beautiful and fitted perfectly with this slowly unfolding aesthetic.
As director, Tim Albery's decision making also lead to what transpired as an incredibly complex yet subtle performance. Verdi's music is incredible descriptive, often of surprising elements of the drama and Albery very subtly and expertly made moments of musical jollity seem aptly sinister, and really brought out the irony in the piece. His decision to set it at some point in between now and the time of the opera's premier allowed for a blank slate, upon which the audience could draw their own conclusions. Most notably for me, it allowed parallels about a certain leader who is blissfully ignorant to the flaws to become apparent...
It would be nice to say that tonight's performance looked and sounded perfect, but unfortunately this was not the case. What let the performance down considerably were a number of small errors, dealt with rather poorly. Props were left on stage and instead of calmly removing them, chorus and cast members seemed panicked about what to do. As well as this, parts of the previously mentioned red curtains failed to fully leave the stage, and instead of leaving them we were treated to a full 30 seconds of cast members trying to stuff them away. This, I felt, really took away from what could have been a very slick and immersive evening. Furthermore, amidst Richard Farnes' excellence as conductor and the Orchestra of Opera North's unfailing ability, a scene involving an ironically upbeat on-stage ball soundtrack during a particularly emotional moment was marred due to some surprisingly out of tune string playing. Of course, this could all be down to the fact that it was opening night, but things really should have been prepared, and I was surprised at the lack of attention to detail which Opera North is normally so proficient at, as well as the slight lapses in character on stage at times.
There were some excellent performances though. Phillip Rhodes yet again delivers in what is quite a complex version of a standard operatic role, but the two standouts for me had to be Patricia Bardon as Ulrica, who owned the stage from the moment she appeared, and especially Adrienn Miksch as Amelia, who not only beautifully delivered some very tricky moments but always had the audience with her on her complex and fraught emotional journey. Miksch's performance was, perhaps, one of the very best I've seen at Opera North.
To summarise, this was an incredibly clever yet subtle take on a classic. On the whole, the production itself is a masterpiece, with some exceptional performances. This is Opera North showing off their ability to truly master the classics. Unfortunately, what could have been an almost perfect performance was let down notably by some small but surprising and easily fixable errors.