Old-fashioned values ran through this revival of Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden: it's a period staging, it's vigorously played by the orchestra and it's perfectly efficient.
But Mario Martone's rather dull production remains a problem. It's difficult to tell from the way he handles the piece that this was Verdi's most controversial opera in its day – one which was dragged through the mire of conservative Italian censorship for its violence and its political, religious and moral extremity. I think the main problem really is Sergio Tramonti's set designs, which are frankly hard to fathom at times. The first scene isn't too bad, even if its painted cloth backdrop seems to indicate more a tent than a room in the house of the Governor of Boston, but the metal scaffolding in Ulrica's dwelling has a strange air of West Side Story about it, while the gallows is just a pile of rubble and Renato's study has a single, never-ending wall containing a picture-less picture frame. Do we really need a plain wooden rocking horse to remind us that Renato and Amelia have a child?
These nondescript surroundings do nothing to clarify or elaborate the action, or to address the style of Antonio Somma's libretto as elaborated by Verdi. We don't get enough of the contrast between light and dark, of the grand and the intimate, of the secular and the mystical; it's a rather compartmentalised opera, in a way, but there's not enough definition to illustrate how the pieces work. Nor is Martone's Personenregie sufficiently detailed, leaving the singers to do their own thing far too much of the time. I have ambivalent feelings about the use of a huge mirror to reflect the image of the audience and orchestra during Riccardo's aria, swinging back for the final scene to reflect a ballroom carved out of the rear of the stage so that one can see the string quartet playing in the background during the frenzied farewell between Riccardo and Amelia: I think it works better in theory than in practice. Still, the production is lavish enough in scale to fit the large Covent Garden stage, and it's not actively offensive: it just doesn't engage with the piece as much as it could.
Musically, by far the finest singing comes from Ramón Vargas as Riccardo. Though a few of the top notes felt tight, the sheer velveteen beauty of Vargas' voice shone through, while his long phrasing, colour and vocal presence all combined to create a poised performance. It's true that Vargas' dramatic ability is limited, but he knows it, and this production is not generally well acted in any case.
Also very impressive was Anna Christy's Oscar: her boyish acting and clear coloratura are ideal for the role, and though at times the singing could have been smoother, the brightness of the voice was perfect, and she was an audience favourite.
Sadly, Angela Marambio's Royal Opera debut was not a triumph, to these ears in any case. In spite of some heartfelt acting and beautiful phrasing lower down in the voice – especially during the quieter third-act aria – the role seemed to be a bridge too far for the soprano. She battled with it confidently, but the tone spread badly above the stave, and Marambio's tendency to sing at full pelt for so much of the time undermined the expressive potential of her performance.
Nor was Dalibor Jenis' Renato a complete success, though he overcame from a shaky start and delivered ‘Eri tu' with more panache. The problem here was again a lack of subtlety, both in the voice – whose vibrato was sometimes too wide – and in the acting, which was too broad. Elena Manistina's Ulrica suffered from similar problems: she was more than competent and really hit the low notes with gravity, but she was just not charismatic enough. Thinking back to Stephanie Blythe, Thomas Hampson and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in these roles during the previous runs of the production is a salutary reminder of the difference in quality. Of the smaller roles, Vuyani Mlinde's Tom and Changhan Lim's Silvano really stood out for the polish and passion they brought to their characters.
I confess the real problem for me was that after experiencing something of a dream Traviata with Richard Eyre and Antonio Pappano teaming up to such devastating effect, this Ballo seemed secure but comparatively anonymous. Maurizio Benini is a very safe pair of hands in this repertoire and really knows what he's doing: I never worried about the ensemble or the balance between stage and pit. The choral singing was often very exciting, too, with some rip-roaring finales and real Italian blood about the attack. But there was also a total lack of distinctiveness and personality about the performance, with no special colour or imagination in the orchestral playing or particular shape about the music. The opportunity to hear the work with such an excellent artist as Vargas is extremely welcome, but overall one would still have to choose the world-class Traviata revival over the safe Ballo one.
Photos credits: Catherine Ashmore