Un ballo in maschera - Royal Opera House, 26 June 2009 (first night)
Although there's not much actively wrong with this show, very little of it really hit the nail either. It made for an unusually yawny evening by Covent Garden standards. I even toyed with the idea of walking out after the first act. Then I remembered how much I'd paid for the ticket.
Most of the problem is Mario Martone's production itself, starting with Sergio Tramonti's sets. They look like entries in a theatrical design contest. Attractive enough, but it's as if each was designed by a different person. The story doesn't have chance to get going and flow smoothly.
And although we're supposed to be in civil-war era Boston, the sense of time and place isn't clearly communicated. A room in Riccardo's house is bare, and as literally interpreted as the olde historical costumery. But it's followed by stacked scaffolding representing Ulrica's house which could have come straight out of a dodgy continental Ring cycle (not helped by Elena Manistina's timid Ulrica) . And why is the gallows scene set in what looks like a bombed-out church? Where are we supposed to be? If Martone's making a statement, it's not in a language I understand.
The direction doesn't offer many clues either. It looks as if all of the cast are just doing their own thing. Ramón Vargas comes out of it best. Riccardo is a great role for him. It capitalises his strengths - that firm, ringing tone, his innate likeability - but his weak point, dramatic rigidity, comes across here as elevated nobility. Some of his top notes were a bit thin, but otherwise he had a great night.
The audience favourite though was Anna Christy's puckish Oscar. After a nervous start, she ripped through the coloratura with ease, and impressively trod the line between irritating the rest of the cast and irritating the audience.
Angela Marambio's Amelia was more problematic. She had the ideas, but not the execution. Her phrasing was intelligent and her colouring appropriate, but they couldn't hide some unpleasantly screechy noises and a vibrato bordering on wobble. Perhaps she'll improve as the run continues, but I wouldn't count on it.
Changhan Lim in the small role of the sailor Silvano was surprisingly more impressive - strong, firm singing and a confident stage presence.
Good job I didn't leave early - the best bit of this production is the final scene. The mirrored back wall is raised and angled to reflect a second pit upstage, where the 'offstage' band play for the ball. It's almost too ingenious and fascinating - I barely noticed Renato stabbing Riccardo to death. Time to applaud the scenery?
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