Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) (A Masked Ball) has all the hallmarks of Italian opera. Love, betrayal, conspiracy, murder, adultery and magic all feature in its melodramatic plot. The opera tells the story of King Gustavo of Sweden’s affair with his friend and advisor’s wife Amelia, and his eventual murder at the hands of her husband, Count Anckarström. Verdi reflects this dramatic plot in his score but it takes a production like this one by Opera North, with their impeccable cast, orchestra and chorus, to bring one of Verdi’s lesser-known works alive.
In contrast to the theatricality of the opera’s plot, Hannah Clark’s modern set design was understated, allowing the audience’s attention to remain on the singers and Verdi’s score. For lesser singers this could have been an exposing risk. Yet it was hardly possible to tell that tenor Adriano Graziani had stepped in last-minute to take on the central role of King Gustavo. He sang with a bright and effortless richness, portraying both the king’s nobility and foolish optimism.
Verdi’s demanding part for the fortune-teller Ulrica Arvidson was boldly executed by mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon. Although one could sense her struggling to compete with the orchestra, especially during challenging low notes, she nevertheless captured the audience’s attention throughout her powerful aria ‘Re dell´abisso, affrettati’. Soprano Tereza Gevorgyan had a delightful energy as Oscar, the king’s youthful secretary, while soprano Adrienn Miksch convincingly portrayed Amelia’s inner struggle as she expressed her elicit love in ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’.
Naturally their performances could only reach such heights with the support of the orchestra and chorus. The sweetness of the love duet between Gustavo and Amelia was enhanced by the strings, proving they can be just as lyrical and heartfelt. Under conductor Richard Farnes, the orchestra magnified Verdi’s drama, relishing not only their full-orchestral climaxes, but also moments of greater subtlety, such as the overture’s menacing fugal passages. Dressed in suits and trench coats as conspirators planning Gustavo’s murder, the male members of the chorus were suitably intimidating. The opera’s ensemble pieces, which can sometimes become tedious, were actually one of the performance’s highest points. It was a treat hearing the overlapping voices of soloists and chorus, coming together with the increasing tension that Verdi creates.