A fascinating, less frequently staged opera by Verdi receives a beautiful treatment from Opera North.
This was Opera North’s first production of Un Ballo, and I hope that it will not be the last. This less often heard opera, while not obviously such a great work as La Traviata, etc., is a delight. As always, Opera North furnishes the production with the finest singers and orchestral players and a highly intelligent use of costume, lighting and stage design, all making for a rich and beautiful show.
The story comes (with the exception of course of some significant embellishments) from history, and concerns the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792. Despite its grounding in historical fact, the plot is thoroughly Shakespearean. The second half becomes a revenge tragedy driven by jealousy as the betrayed Anckarström vows to kill the King (to whom he is also most trusted friend and adviser), whose affair with his wife Amelia he discovers in the culmination to the first half. This is the major embellishment.
Originally, the historical Anckarström was driven by purely political motives. The thought to have a more sentimental motor to the plot was that of the librettist, Scribe, to the original opera (more on that later) by Auber. Since the nineteenth century (at least the second half) could not conceive of a work of art without some melodramatic transgression driven by love, Verdi and his librettist (Somma) retained the emendation. Another embellishment is Oscar, the King’s page (played beautifully by Tereza Gevorgyan), who reminds one of a Shakespearean fool—and who, just like Shakespeare’s fools, is more high spirited than foolish, and perhaps the least foolish person on the stage. As the programme notes remind one, Verdi took to the writing of Un Ballo when he turned away from his long-frustrated adaptation of King Lear.
The first half covers three scenes or locations: the King’s court, the house of the fortune-teller Ulrica (sometimes called Oracle) and the city edge, “where the guilty are put to death”. A locus symbolicus if ever there were one. In the first scene, we learn that the King loves Amelia Anckarström, and the prompts are put in place to get him to see the oracle in disguise as a fisherman (you see the Shakespearean influence). The second scene takes us to Ulrica (the oracle) who warns him of his fate, which he (as do all tragic protagonists) tragically ignores.
The culminating scene of the act takes Amelia, Gustavo, and eventually Mr. Anckarström, to the edge of the city, where Anckarström discovers the infidelity of his wife and friend. The three locations of the first half are brilliantly differentiated by the effective team of Tim Albery (Director), Hannah Clarke (Set and Costume), and Thomas C. Hase (Lighting): the King’s court is polite, and its vastness is accentuated by the slope of the walls downstage, the grisaille colours showing off something of the dissatisfactions of the court (Gustavo’s yearning for Amelia, the consequent temptation to adultery, the resentment of the conspirators against the King).
When the scene moves to Ulrica’s, a curtain of thin red (what I assume is) gauze rises to cover the grey walls: the implications are of moral seediness (the lights behind the red curtains give off some sense of a red light district, or, more generally, the disordered fringe of the society which Gustavo tries to keep in order; and his movement to there a symbol of his fatal transgression) and of course, the diabolic. These thoughts are confirmed when Ulrica herself summons the devil, or ‘re dell’abisso’ (King of the abyss) to help her see the future. The city edge ought to be replete with gallows, but instead we had chairs—a little far flung and confusing, and it was only later reading, not the production itself, that gave away that they were supposed to be gallows, and how important these gallows were to the opera’s powerful symbolic suggestions.
At the city edge, Amelia and the King become caught up in a love duet that, for length, rivals the final scene of Siegfried, and so (likewise) begins to drag. Love is a very fine thing, but how long does one need to reiterate phrases which are basically slight variations on the same thing? I think Verdi misses a trick here (Wagner definitely does), in that art can express love—and often benefits from so doing—in an efficient, understated way: a few words, a few bars or a glance may do more than a whole half-hour of two people on stage singing the same-old to one another. The company’s advertisement page describes this as ‘the heart of the opera’ and ‘one of Verdi’s greatest and most impassioned love duets’. I suppose the weighty opinion (of Opera North, of Verdi) is against me, but let the people of Leeds be warned: your seat may seem less comfortable during this long-drawn section.
As always in Opera North’s productions, the programme comes with a number of fascinating, well informed short essays (however, there are always a few misprints and/or typographical errors, too). In this edition, Simon Rees’ comments on the troubles of censorship which afflicted Un Ballo in particular and Verdi in general are especially enriching. For a long time, the story was forcibly transplanted to nineteenth-century America, where of course Gustavo can no longer be a King. I cannot but applaud Opera North for taking the intelligent decision to restore the logic of the original. George Hall writes on the French elements in the opera. Un Ballo is in fact a re-writing of Auber’s Gustave III, ou le bal masqué (1833) on the same subject. Particularly fascinating in this essay is reading about Verdi’s use of some of Auber’s musical ideas, particularly the light, masquing-music texture that prevails throughout the score (with a few highly dramatic exceptions).
The second half is rather starved of dramatic incidents, the only exciting moment being the assassination itself. Instead we are mainly to be entertained by the dance sequences at the ball. I confess I found these rather short, although what choreographer Laïla Diallo comes up with was undeniably very fine. Although less incidental than the first half, the second has a marvellous momentum in our knowledge of Anckarström’s resentments and our entertainment—allied with substance—in seeing the trusted friend transformed by jealousy into a figure of evil. (Whatever you think of his revenge against the King, can anyone approve of his laying down his son’s life as assurance of his faith to the conspirators?) The singer, Phillip Rhodes, who played Anckarström’s part, made the downfall all the more engaging with his resemblance to Jon Hamm, with a similar charisma. (How Adrienn Miksch’s Amelia could have fallen instead for Rafael Rojas’ Gustavo, then, is a mystery. I suppose in some cases, power does attract.)
The opera comes movingly to a close with the grief of Oscar and other onlookers as the King expires, saying, with his last breaths, that Amelia is innocent of the crime of adultery and that Anckarström is pardoned of his crime. Amazingly, the historical King Gustavus did pardon the historical Anckarström, too (albeit of course without the love angle). How disappointed the historical Anckarström must have been, then, when he had his hand and head lopped off a few days later, and his body quartered! I suppose regicides must expect and accept these things. This piece of historical knowledge does somewhat add a bitter aftertaste to the nobility and heroism of the work of art, however.
All in all, a fascinating production. Occasionally the staging seemed to conflict slightly with specific points in the music (e.g., a character casually sitting down as a phrase reaches its dramatic climax), but this is a common problem and a subjective criticism. A bit more objectively irritating was a constant beep which could be heard (as far as I could tell from conversations in the interval) more or less everywhere in the stalls. But it was drowned out when the music was anything more than piano, and was gone altogether by the second half. It was a packed house, and the warm reception of the opera was obvious from the long, and loud, applause.
There will be performances of at Leeds Grand Theatre throughout February until 2nd March.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.