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 Korn/Ferry Opera Holland Park [1]  - Verdi, Un ballo in maschera: soloists and chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia. Conductor: Peter Robinson. Holland Park, London, 21.7.2009. (JPr)

Amanda Echalaz (Amelia) and Olafur Sigurdarson (Renato)

Verdi started this opera in 1857 based on Eugène Scribe’s play Gustave III ou Le Bal Masqué in a version that was a dramatisation of real historical events of 65 years earlier, by his librettist Antonio Somma. It concerns the assassination of the Swedish King, Gustavus III, who in 1792 is sought out at a masked ball he is hosting by Captain Anckarström and his co-conspirators, Horn and Ribbing. Anckarström shoots the King who later dies from his wounds. Ulrica Arfvidsson, a famous medium is interrogated about the plot since she is supposed to have foretold the King’s murder. But Somma’s faithful retelling of the story fell foul of the Italian censors and the scenario was shifted to seventeenth-century Boston; the King, now called Riccardo, becomes merely the colonial governor and Anckarström becomes Renato though still his secretary. Horn, Ribbing and Ulrica are basically unaffected by the changes.

In his production for Opera Holland Park, director Martin Lloyd-Evans keeps to the US setting but updates the period and gives us a governor who appears to have won the Presidential election and is about to enter the White House and give the Inaugural Ball. If not brought as up-to-date as Obama, then there are definite suggestions here of Kennedy or Clinton who certainly both had an eye for any woman passing by - married or not. There is a bit of a mishmash of versions employed here because the ‘President’ is Gustavo while the cuckolded husband is Renato (or Renatto on occasions in the English surtitles) and Oscar, now the personal aide to ‘the chief executive’ is de-trousered – though given the context, not in the sense you might by now be expecting. The role is usually sung by a woman playing a man but here she was most definitely playing a woman in a sharp magenta dress suit … though still named Oscar: I hope you are still following all of this.

Some elements of this new setting in Jamie Vartan’s cost-conscious designs worked better than others. At the beginning we see a large Presidential Seal about to be raised into place and there is a hint of a large ‘Stars and Stripes’ flag. Members of the White House security, admin, maintenance and catering staff populate the stage, Renato is a US Naval Commander and mobile phones are frequently used by all the characters. Ulrica becomes a famous TV psychic, who gives her pronouncements shrouded in dry ice in front of a huge blue eye with everything she says recorded on camera and by a boom microphone. Less appositely, the place of execution (where Amelia, Gustavo’s inamorata and Renato’s wife, must find the herb with special powers to cure her illicit passion) becomes a rubbish-strewn alleyway with braziers in a neighbourhood where drug-dealing and gang violence take place. Amelia is obviously there to get her heroin fix and when discovered by the conspirators, she is photographed on their mobile phones ‘shooting-up’. This is presumably a way of blackmailing Renato and keeping him in the assassination plot.

After the interval, money and/or the director’s inventiveness seems to have run out because – somewhat against the spirit of the libretto - Renato appears to receive invitations for a ball whose guests are already arriving behind him. Little interesting happens at this point and so the Bugs Bunny cartoons being shown to Amelia’s son tended to divert my attention rather too much! Everyone has Gustavo masks on, there is a gesticulating chorus in the background but Martin Lloyd-Evans builds little suspense. The President is finally dispatched with a gunshot to a cry of ‘He’ll pay for America’s tears’ and aides try to stem the flow of blood with copious amounts of blue paper toweling.

Holland Park is a canopied open-air venue of course and the stage is a temporary one in front of a grand building with elegant arched windows. The singers and orchestra battle against noise from the park apparently without amplification. In my opinion it would be better to lose a metre or so from the front of the stage to accommodate an orchestra rather larger – if money allows – than the 41 listed in the programme. Spread across the wide stage front, the orchestral players from the resident City of London Sinfonia often seemed to be playing solos, the low woodwind dissonances were unsettling and together with the cimbasso seemed to veer the sound of the small orchestra towards a period chamber-like account of Verdi’s music. Considering the longueurs that his scores, including this one, can allow an over-reverential conductor this was not an entirely bad thing. Peter Robinson’s conducting was unfussy and kept the evening moving even if the overall sound was not overly full of Italianate colours.

That the first night of Opera Holland Park’s Un ballo in maschera went as well as it did was a triumph over potential disaster because Rafael Rojas, who should have sung Gustavo was suffering from a chest infection, and a replacement was only found apparently at 3pm prior to the evening’s performance. The valiant tenor standing in the pit in front of the conductor singing whilst Rojas enthusiastically ‘walked’ and lip-synched his role was the veteran British tenor, David Rendall and it all worked surprisingly well. Rendall’s clarion heroic tenor voice had remarkable freshness for someone with such a long career and there was enough ease and control in his projection to show-up the more effortful contributions of some of his younger colleagues on stage.

Olafur Sigurdarson, as the loyal hand-clasping friend-turned-murderer Renato tried hard but his Act III Eri tu was rather characterless and he just about got through it because he sounded tired. Carole Wilson’s cigarette-smoking Ulrica had a satisfyingly sepulchral mezzo timbre and Benedict Nelson’s Cristiano made the most of his cameo as a wheelchair-bound, one legged war veteran. Gail Pearson’s Oscar had a lively personality and looked amazingly like Kylie Minogue in her blush-pink ball gown, but her voice lacked the sparklingly bell-like tones of the best Oscars.

Many eyes and ears were concentrating on Amanda Echalaz’s Amelia after the South African soprano recently left rehearsals at Holland Park to replace an ailing Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca at Covent Garden. Half her battle is won because she is tall, slim, dark-haired and quite striking looking whether dressed in head-scarf, dark glasses and raincoat or wearing a black and cream haute couture dress with black stilettos. She is also a compelling actress and clearly has a powerful and intense soprano voice. At the moment there is however, little freedom to her sound that seems to come from rather far back in her throat. The effect this has is a little difficult to put into words accurately but here’s an analogy: it was as though she was panning gold from grit rather than spinning the golden threads of Verdi’s long legato lines.

Jim Pritchard


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