WNO Ballo in Maschera


Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ****
Mist tumbles from the stage, sinister figures throw long shadows, and no-one seems sure whether to dress for a funeral or…well, a masked ball. For director David Pountney, Un ballo in maschera is "Verdi's Gothick opera" and his new production for Welsh National Opera makes gloriously free with the theatre of the macabre. Blood-red curtains conceal catacombs made up of tiny proscenium arches; a full moon broods over Act Two, and in the final ball scene, the entire cast turn into skull-faced carnivalgoers from the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Where this leaves us as regards 18th century Sweden (or indeed, Verdi's alternate setting of Boston – although the chorus, confusingly, waves Swedish flags) is anyone's guess. It looks fantastic, it conjures a potent atmosphere and for every distracting misfire (like Pountney's decision to split the character of Riccardo in two for the final scene) there's an image – like the red eyes of the conspirators' wolf-masks glowing in the shadows - that sinks deep into your sense of dread.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to say that Amelia, Mary Elizabeth Williams stole the show, though her rich, superbly controlled tone and the heart-piercing pathos of her expression won the evening's first – but not last – big ovation. Roland Wood's black-toned Renato walked a compelling line between nobility and wounded passion; WNO favourite Gwyn Hughes Jones was a sympathetic Riccardo. And Harriet Eyley, singing the page Oscar for one night only, sprayed diamond-cut coloratura against the surrounding darkness: punky, puckish and yet still, in the end, genuinely poignant.

As for the WNO orchestra - its colour and energy held taut as a bowstring by conductor Carlo Rizzi – and the mighty sound of the WNO chorus; well, let's just say that Covent Garden would be lucky to hear Verdi singing or conducting of this quality. But you already knew that, didn't you?

Richard Bratby

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