Thursday, 16 May 2013


Opera Up Close, King's Head Theatre
14 May 2013

Pavarotti and Millo in the great love duet from this opera. 
More designed for the opera house, as here, than a tiny theatre.

Un Ballo in Maschera in a version more likely to confirm prejudices against opera than gain it new converts.

Does it make sense to attend a performance of a repertory opera in a version that gives very little sense of how it would sound in a normal opera house?

I’ve seen Opera Up Close productions of La Boheme and Carmen, as well as pared-down productions of ‘classics’ at Grimeborn and elsewhere, and all of these have worked, even if I am aware that they would sound different with a full orchestra, and that something important is therefore missing.

Verdi showed surprising patience as A Masked Ball was renamed and relocated before its first performance, though I doubt the composer or his librettists would thank Opera Up Close for their conceit of placing it within an Ikea-like store (named Ballo) in a gruesome part of north-west London.

Naturally, the new English version of the text has undergone a massive transformation in order to accommodate this, and would confirm a sceptic’s sense that opera texts are absurd, suitable only for comic verse, in this case mildly funny but not especially so.

In fairness, the original presents major challenges too, wherever it is set. But by having the assassination plot centre around a King, or at least a Governor, the work gains an aura of seriousness that it doesn’t deserve. But stripping that aura weakens the whole, so that we are left with a murder plot against a store manager.

This may be an effective criticism or demystification of the original, but it doesn’t produce a good drama in itself.

The Opera Up Close aesthetic of a piano accompaniment, in this case a wretched upright, strongly complements the sense that we are witnessing a critique of standard opera rather than a genuine artistic re-imagining of a masterpiece. (It doesn’t help that the original is not a masterpiece, in my view).

As an aside, given the common criticism of Verdi as using the orchestra like a guitar, perhaps it might make more sense to use a guitar accompaniment rather than a piano. But I feel the criticism is misplaced in any event – Verdi’s orchestration is often sublimely appropriate, like Gluck’s.

Musically, these events can be trying, as opera singers project so forcefully that their voices, even if light, are overwhelming in such a small acoustic. I suspect only spoken drama can work in the King’s Head Theatre. But in this performance matters were made much worse by the choice of a male soprano for Oscar, rather than the usual soprano in a trouser role. I don’t mean to be harsh to talented singers, but the sopranist voice needs to be astonishing to work properly, and not sound, as here, like a screech.

On the other hand, the Amelia this evening (there are two casts) was impressive, given acoustic limitations, with some delightful dynamic and breath control and generally aiming for a beautiful tone.

If the sounds were galling, at least the enunciation was flawless, and it is a rare experience to be able to understand every word.

So given the number of revisions, perhaps this should have been given as a spoken drama rather than sung?

I think the singing was justified if only because Verdi's magnificent introduction and duet in Act 2 still worked its ecstatic magic despite all misgivings, and some wooden tempi. And if this was the highlight of an otherwise vulgar evening, the blame for that lies as much with the original as with this revision.

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