Tuesday 25 June 2013

Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Giuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Opera Australia, 2013

Andrea Molino, Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Diego Torre, Tamar Iveri, José Carbó, Mariana Pentcheva, Taryn Fiebig, Luke Gabbedy, Richard Anderson, Jud Arthur, Andrew Brunsdon, Dean Bassett

Opera Australia Cinema Live, 2013

There's always a moment of doubt about a new production by La Fura dels Baus when you wonder if they are going to pull off a spectacular coup in their vision for a particular work (as in their productions of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, for example) or whether it's going to be a complete fiasco (like their versions of Les Troyens and Die Zauberflöte). There's a moment at the start of the Opera Australia production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera when it looks like they might have taken things a little too far again, but even if there remain a few doubts about the validity of the concept here, the direction unquestionably draws out the full force of Verdi's work.

With La Fura dels Baus' Alex Ollé at the helm here the concept is at least a little more restrained than it might have been in the hands of his colleague Carlus Padrissa. Rather than try to make an opera fit an idea, Alex Ollé is a little more inclined to propose an overall concept and then let the meaning of the work speak for itself through attention to the performance. That was the case with his Tristan und Isolde and, once you get over the initial strangeness of Alfons Flores and Lluc Castells' designs, it proves to be the strength here in a late mid-period Verdi opera that can often be problematic to stage.

It's not however a great stretch to consider the idea of masks as being a central theme of the work, and that indeed is the focus of Alex Ollé's concept. The exposition of this theme, as well as the question of revolution that is inevitably a part of most Verdi works, is laid out during the overture. A screen showing modern projections of war, famine, death and revolution, emphasises those aspects in terms of our own society where there is a marked divide between those in power and the ordinary person on the street. That division is further emphasised through the wearing of masks - literal as well as metaphorical - on the part of King Gustav III and his court, while the ordinary citizens, on the rare occasions we see them, are unmasked and depicted in the style of antiglobalist protesters.

The masks worn by Gustav and the royal court then are not just worn during the Masked Ball in the final act of the opera, but almost throughout the whole work and only very occasionally removed. It's perhaps unfortunate that the flesh coloured masks cover the top of the head and sides of the face and are rather blocky in a way that makes everyone look like the android Kryten in the TV SF-comedy series 'Red Dwarf'. Once you get past this and accept the concept for what it is - that everyone, whether conspirator, friend of the king, or even the king himself must necessarily hide their true face - it's a valid if not particularly deep response to the work.

Barring the costumes (mainly marine blue suits with identifier IDs imprinted on them) and the wearing of masks however, Ollé's direction for the work remains fairly traditional and - up until the final scene at least - sticks closely to the original intentions of the work. There are a few minor touches (references to swords for example) that show the difference between the period setting of the original and the science-fiction like tyrannical dystopia of this production, but there's nothing that takes away from the force of the work. In some cases, such as the horrors of Amelia's midnight expedition to the cemetery showing the real victims of Gustav's reign, the changes actually serve to make the situation more realistic and down to earth.

Applying realism to the setting is exactly what Un Ballo in Maschera needs, and it's refreshing to see the qualities that are undoubtedly there in Verdi's composition not buried behind operatic mannerisms or the theatrical contrivances of the somewhat creaky plot. The benefits of this could be seen in the singing and the acting performances. The most impressive here for me was Tamar Iveri. Amelia is not the easiest role to sing or bring to life, but the Georgian soprano really showed a sense of personality that makes her part in Gustav's downfall credible. Her singing was magnificent throughout, commanding yet sensitive to the characterisation and the situation, never more so than in her spellbinding account of Amelia's Act III aria 'Morrò, ma prima in grazia' - sung significantly with her "human" face revealed from behind the mask seen elsewhere.

Having only previously seen the ludicrous old-fashioned operatic gesticulation of Marcelo Álvarez in two other stage productions of Un Ballo in Maschera, it was refreshing to see Gustav performed here by a fine singer who can also act. Diego Torre brought real dramatic intensity to the king, showing the depth of his love for Amelia as well as his flaws as a ruler in the personal decisions he lets influence them that give his enemies rightful cause to conspire against him. He's no tyrant or romantic fool here, but a real person with human weaknesses and his dilemma is fully felt. As Renato José Carbó started out not so strongly, but gained gravity as the opera progressed, ending up fully embodying the role, which perhaps realistically reflects the development of his character.

As good as each of the singers were in their own right however, the true quality of the work, its dark nature and the conflict of interests between its character, comes out fully in the duets and ensemble pieces. Together, with this kind of singing and intensity of performance, the effect was powerful. Alex Ollé's stage direction played to those strengths, never undercutting the important moments of true drama in the work. And, as I indicated earlier, more than that, he also managed to bring some gravity and realism to the weaker aspects of the plot. It's not clear quite why it's not only Gustav who dies at the end here but all the other guests as well, victims of a gas attack by the conspirators. The fact that they are wearing masks also - gas masks - adds another level to the notion of the masked ball, as well as invoking revolutionary imagery that we have become very familiar with on our televisions recently. And in that respect it's perhaps a more recognisable and realistic result of violent civil war arising out of protests to remove a hated leader.