Fresh vibrant production with fluid and dramatic performances of Verdi’s melodrama Un ballo in maschera. Royal Opera’s new production is about reclaiming the drama as well as the big singing. The leading ladies, Liudmyla Monastyrska (Amelia) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato), gave committed and satisfying musical performances; Marianne Cornetti gave a particularly spooky interpretation of Ulrica, the fortune teller. But for me it was Joseph Calleja (Riccardo) who commanded the stage musically, dramatically and with an athleticism that showed his enthusiasm for this role. Though I wasn’t convinced by Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia that he would be so much fallen in love as the plot requires.

This is an apparently straightforward setting but unusually is based in Austro-Hungarian Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, within which the production design holds consistent with a lot of detail and depth. The main benefits of this setting appear to be an opportunity for some tasty uniforms and sumptuous frocks. It sort of works as fitting preconceived ideas about how a grand opera should look though actually the staging is for an era fifty years after the premiere. The staging and lighting are complex but come over as straightforward, helping to build the melodrama without distracting from the music.

Un ballo in maschera packs a political punch and Verdi had considerable trouble with the Italian censors, in reaction to which changes were made to the plot and the location. The published score places the action in eighteenth century Boston, USA although the opera is based on the assignation of King Gustav III of Sweden!

A week after the Charlie Hebo cartoons have triggered major events in France we might not be so surprised that an opera triggered a revolution but in 1830 a related opera caused a riot in Belgium which contributed to the Belgian Revolution in 1830. (Masaniello, ou La muette de Portici, an opera by Daniel Auber, with a libretto revised by Eugène Scribe, on whose libretto for Auber’s Le Bal Masque was the basis which Verdi’s librettist used for Un ballo in maschera.)

Royal Opera have previously presented productions of Un ballo in maschera set in Sweden and America. This new production clears away some baggage although doesn’t claim to get closer to the composer’s intentions had the original productions not been censored. For example the programme notes indicate that the graveyard scene was originally intended to be placed around a gallows - that wasn’t obviously featured in this production.

Tonight’s performance, conducted by Daniel Oren, was musically satisfying not least due to excellent playing from Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Excellent pit/stage balance and particularly fine harp accompaniments in Act 2.

So what we have is an enjoyable, consistent and above all entertaining production of an old favourite, but a production which doesn’t aim to be original or to throw any new light on the piece. In a way an opportunity missed to recreate Verdi’s original intentions but now this production is repertoire, it could provide a good vehicle for stellar casts: previous productions at Covent Garden have featured names such as Carouso, Pavarotti, Eva Turner and Domingo.

Un ballo in maschera
Music - Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto - Antonio Somma
Director - Katharina Thoma
Set design - Soutra Gilmour
Costume designs - Irina Bartels
Lighting design - Olaf Winter
Choreography - Lucy Burge

Conductor - Daniel Oren
Orchestra - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Riccardo - Joseph Calleja
Amelia - Liudmyla Monastyrska
Renato - Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Ulrica - Marianne Cornetti
Oscar - Lauren Fagan
Samuel - Anatoli Sivko
Tom - Jihoon Kim
Silvano - Samuel Dale Johnson
Minister of Justice - Samuel Sakker
Chorus - Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - Ania Safonova