A masked ball, an ominous fortune telling and a plot to kill the king – Un ballo in maschera will have you on the edge of your seat.
I won’t beat around the bush. The second show in Opera North’s Fatal Passions season is absolutely sensational. Verdi’s score is lively, entertaining and incredibly diverse – it grips you from the very first moment, before the singers even utter a word. But believe me, when they do, you’ll be totally engrossed – in fact, there were times in this production when I completely forgot to check the subtitles. You don’t need them, the music tells the story.
It’s based on the real-life assassination of King Gustavus of Sweden, so you’re under no illusions when you come into the theatre – things are going to end badly. You might even be expecting a sombre opera full of brooding tension, but that’s not what you get. Un ballo in maschera is surprisingly upbeat – even as Gustavus’ enemies plot their revenge, they’re countered by his supporters who wish him well, and the two voices run over each other in a bewitching harmony that has your attention pinging from one to another.
That first song sets the tone for the night – Verdi puts his performers through the ringer, challenging them with fast-paced ditties, unbelievable highs and contrasting lows, but it’s rarely ever a solo singer. The five leads, who all shone on the night, come together in a string of toe-tapping tunes that layer one voice atop of another. And let’s not forget the chorus – the final scene absolutely blew the roof off, it was so loud that you could feel it reverberating through the chairs.
Un ballo in maschera starts with an extended instrumental prelude that puts the audience’s attention firmly on the orchestra – they’re often forgotten, but in those first minutes, you’re reminded that the talent isn’t restricted to the people on the stage, the ones in the pit are working just as hard.
The music moves you into a fast-paced plot, full of twists and turns. The civil war has come to an end, but tensions are still running high. King Gustavus is much loved by the people, but he has enemies in his inner circle – and that’s not his only problem. He’s fallen in love with Amelia, the wife of his closest and most loyal ally, Count Anckarstroem.
Out of the blue, we’re taken on an unexpected segue – the Lord Chief Justice wants to banish a fortune teller in the city, but Gustavus’ servant, Oscar, stands up for her, so instead, they disguise themselves and head off to test the truth of her predictions. Needless to say, Gustavus is given a deadly prediction, one that we all know will come true, but it’s done in a way that makes it frivolous and fun.
This isn’t your usual love triangle either. It’s usually easy to pick a side, but in Un ballo in maschera, it’s hard to decide who the bad guy is. Gustavus has fallen for Amelia, but he hasn’t acted on it. Amelia is in love with Gustavus, but she’s prepared to visit the city’s gallows in the dead of night to rid herself of her love for him, no matter what the consequences. Yes, they meet and declare their love for each other, but is it betrayal if you resist temptation?
That’s where the tragedy in this opera really lies, because as the king lies dying at the hand of his best friend, the truth comes out – although he knew it would make him miserable, he was going to send Count Anckarstroem and Amelia away so that nothing would ever happen between them.
The action plays out in an impressive setting. The ballroom is transformed into a seedy club with billowing curtains that rise up from the ground, and they’re taken all the way to the ceiling to create a creepy night-scape where criminals are put to death. The only questionable choice was the gallows – handcuffed chairs adorned the stage, but there wasn’t a hangman’s rope to be seen.
That wasn’t enough to detract from the experience though, and I left the theatre with a smile. Un ballo in maschera is a lively, entertaining opera that feels a lot shorter than its 2.5 hours – it’s fast moving and the music speaks for itself, so if you’re looking for an opera to start on, this is the one.
You can see Un ballo in maschera at Leeds Grand Theatre until Friday 2nd March 2018.