Un ballo in maschera - Opera Holland Park, 21 July 2009
I've occasionally spotted some funny things in the undergrowth in Holland Park. But there's no grassy knoll, and nothing that could pass for a book suppository. Nevertheless, JFK's assassination is the reference point for Martin Lloyd Evans's contemporary update of Un ballo in maschera.
It should satisfy those who complained that the recent Royal Opera House production skimmed over the story's political aspect in favour of the lurve triangle. In fact the romance is so underplayed as to be almost non-existent.
Instead the 'herb' Amelia seeks via the fortune-teller Ulrica (here the victim/guest in a savagely parodied TV reality show) is the sort that carries a custodial sentence. The gallows scene is transplanted to an urban wasteland where a shadowy hoodie supplies Amelia with her fix - brazenly injected centre stage. Riccardo finds her slumped in post-score coma. The sordid secret she wants to hide is not being caught alone with another man (no longer a faux pas of course - in fact practically compulsory in modern political circles) - but her desperate addiction.
The staging was unclear in places - why were the conspirators taking pictures of her, did Renato agree to assassinate Riccardo only because he feared a spot of Drugs Shame blackmail, and what was the point of the Bugs Bunny cartoon? And the hesitant movement suggested a couple more rehearsals wouldn't have gone amiss. But although I had a little sympathy with the lone booer at the end of the first scene, by the end it had all knitted together into far more than gratuitous sensationalism - and the warm applause and interval chat suggested that even the more conservative operagoers were convinced.
The bold twist threw Amelia right to the centre of the story throughout. And Amanda Echalaz was absolutely stunning. Her lean, thrilling soprano is nimble but powerful, and as accurate as a laser-guided missile. It may not be the most beautiful voice, but when you hear it in this music, you realise it's exactly what Verdi wanted. The desperation of a woman on the edge of breakdown was palpable. Just brilliant.
The scheduled tenor, Rafael Rojas, wasn't well, so he mimed while his eleventh hour replacement David Rendall sang with creditable power from the pit. What could have turned out a disaster was, save for an inevitable lack of ensemble precision, a barely-noticeable drawback.
Olafur Sigurdarson sang Renato strongly and fluidly, only succumbing to a bit of blustering at the end. Gail Pearson's voice is a bit on the heavy side for Oscar (here a female office aide), but it projects well, and with her brisk secretarial manner the character was less cloying than usual. Carole Wilson was a terrific Ulrica, properly sung not wobbled through. And Benedict Nelson made an arresting (almost scene-stealing) appearance as Silvano, an embittered wheelchair-bound vet, strongly and expressively sung.
A bit more power from the chorus and tightness from the orchestra wouldn't have gone amiss, but with OHP's limited rehearsal time, it's a risk you take with the first show in any run.