bllo cast

Un Ballo in Maschera

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Verdi’s take on love, power and revenge is given a dark, satirical twist by David Poutney and the Welsh National Opera.

The story is simple. A ruler, the count, Riccardo, is in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend. Renato, and she with him. The Count has enemies though, and when his best friend discovers he is a cuckold, he joins the conspirators and is selected to assassinate the Count, which he does.

As the Count shuffles off the mortal coil, admittedly in a somewhat lively and cheerful way, he declares Amelia to still be pure, nothing having happened between them, forgives everyone and dies with everyone chanting their admiration and love for him, perhaps something that may have been more gratifying to him had they done it before they bumped him off.

The opera itself is tied up in Italian and European politics. The plot was based on the 1792 assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III at a masked ball, un ballo in Maschera, by political conspirators. Gustav survived the attempt but his gunshot wound became infected and he was to die 13 days later.

But, with the French Revolution still fresh in memory, an attempt to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III in Paris a year earlier, and a fragmented Italy with kings north and south, in the throes of unrest and reunification and the second Italian war of independence underway, the powers that be did not want anything that might suggest or encourage regicide.


Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo and Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia. Pictures: Bill Cooper

So, duly censored, for King of Sweden now read Riccardo, Count of Warwick and Governor of Boston during the British Colonial period, presumably speaking perfect Italian with a Midland accent.

Pountney’s production could be anywhere, a setting (Raimund Bauer) with lighting (Fabrice Kebour) of funereal crimson and blacks. The setting consists of rows of old theatre seats and huge monoliths hauled around the stage by cast or stage crew. Draped in deep red curtains they are sombre giants, curtains drawn, then they are revealed as a sort of columbaria - the theme of death again.

I must admit to being a little unsure. They certainly added interest as to what they were forming next, but several times made blocking difficult. In one scene where both Amelia and Riccardo seek the advice of a soothsayer, Ulrica, sung with some gravitas by contralto Sara Fulgoni, three blocks are set close together at 90 degrees to the stage apron, like narrow, ceiling high, supermarket aisles below giant shelves.

Unless you are in line you cannot see beyond the end. A minor quibble perhaps but the blocks do leave a restricted view in some scenes for seats towards the flanks.

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia are a delight, managing every emotion from love to hate, happiness to sorrow. They give us soaring power and soft, tender sadness with equal clarity and delivery.


A dejected Amelia with the red-eyed conspirators in the background

Oscar, Riccardo’s page, looking rather like a Michael Jackson tribute act in his/her sailor’s disguise was sung quite beautifully on Press night by young Derbyshire soprano Harriet Eyley. Her huge voice belies her diminutive size. It is a voice with a wonderful warmth, clarity, and tone and she exudes charm on stage, and, in this role, a sense of mischief and fun whenever she appears. Definitely one to watch.

Baritone Roland Wood has a deep, rich voice as the best friend and confident Renato, who first saves and then takes the life of his friend.

As always the WNO chorus are superb. Here they give us lords and ladies, courtiers disguised as sailors, the fortune teller’s entourage, conspirators, both formal and in strange red headgear with bright red LED eyes, and dressed as skeletons at the masked ball (costumes Marie-Jeanne Lecca)

Pountney pays homage to the original setting with a big show of Swedish flags in a production which seems to embrace death, opening with the good count enclosed in a black coffin which no doubt is equipped with all mod cons.

Sitting by his casket on his dais is Ulrica and atop the coffin is Oscar – a female playing a male part being Verdi’s sly reference to rumours about Gustav’s sexual proclivities.

Riccardo emerges to attend to court business, such as the list of guests for the ball, or the demand by the Judge (Gareth Dafydd Morris) that Ulrica, the fortune teller, is banished. Oscar defends her and so the Count, and Amelia, decide to visit her in disguise to see for themselves.

Big mistake. She tells Riccardo his days are numbered, while Amelia seeks help to stop loving the Count - and it all goes downhill for both of them from there.


Roland Wood as the angry, betrayed Renato

Poutney has gone for a production full of sumptuous costumes, slightly surreal and even with little visual jokes, such as when Amelia heads off to the local gallows on the heath outside town at midnight to collect some magic herb, there are the rows of theatre seats presumably for the crowds to sit eating their popcorn watching the day’s executions.

The transformation of the lords and courtiers as they disguise themselves as sailors could be straight from Iolanthe or Pirates of Penzance.

Ulrica and the two leaders of the conspirators, Samuel (Jihoon Kim) and Tom (Tristan Hambleton) are pushed around on what look like oversized tennis umpire’s chairs, which, if nothing else, sets them apart from the crowd.

Realism has gone out of the window, and you get the feeling this is all a little tongue in cheek, the WNO having fun with Verdi’s opera – although the fun is halted for some quite beautifully sung arias, such as Amelia’s heartfelt plea to see her son before she dies, Morrò, ma prima in grazia, or the powerful Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa as she picks the herb to make her forget Riccardo.

There is anger and sadness in Renato’s song of betrayal as he decides it is not his wife but the man he thought his friend who deserves to die, Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima, while there is Riccardo’s song of both honour and regret Ma se m'è forza perderti as he decides to end his love of Amelia and to send her and Renato back to England – we are supposed to be in Boston remember.

And everything is in the funereal colours of scarlet and black, a forboding gloom to compliment Verdi’s dramatic score.

The result is an opera which is hardly cosy, some of the imagery, if not quite disturbing, still takes you out of your opera comfort zone bringing a smile or a “what the . . .”, but it is always interesting and carried along with Verdi’s sweeping score played, as ever, superbly by the WNO orchestra under Carlo Rizzi.

Roger Clarke



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