ball_event2On Saturday with D to Opera Australia’s Masked Ball. That is Verdi’s opera based on a previous opera about the assassination, in 1792, of Gustav III of Sweden. It seems that masked balls were particularly hazardous in Scandinavia – one features in the events surrounding the Danish monarchy of that time which were also the subject of a recent film – and you have to wonder why they kept having them.

The production concept has been described variously as “Orwellian” (that’s as in “1984”) and Stalinist and even as referencing the last days in the bunker in Berlin. There’s lots of stuff looking like exposed concrete – think Macquarie Uni or the more Corbusierian bits of UTS/Kuringgai CAE or (for the scene at the gibbet) the underside of any elevated roadway. It’s a striking set which manages to make the Opera Theatre (OK, Joan Sutherland Theatre) stage look bigger than it really is.

Gustav’s regime is depicted as tyrannous rather than merely benignly despotic. The dramatic premise is that almost everybody wears a mask. There are signs of protest against this, implying that the masks are imposed by some kind of compulsion. The masks look a bit like the old-fashioned leather boxing helmets and the publicity shot of Gustav and Amelia (the lovers of the action) makes them look like boxers rather than lovers.

This turns the opera into a bit of a dystopic thriller. This matches quite a lot of the music, though it tends to weaken the affective power of the love story and to diminish the space for responding to Amelia’s plight.

Andrea Molino conducts without a score and the orchestra responded to him warmly.  I had to laugh when I caught the principal viola grooving along (a birdlike  head back-and-forth movement) to the strummed harp at one particularly stirring point.

“Masked Ball” is one of those operas that has a reputational aura. I’m not sure why exactly it is – perhaps it is just a consequence of its relative rarety in performance (the other Verdi opera which I think of in the same way is “Don Carlo[s]”). What came to mind in this production or at least Saturday’s performance was the dramatic intensity of the music. It’s full of musical cues of foreboding and it never really lets up.

Vocally the production is cast at the top of OA’s range and it’s only because I am not a critic that I’m not going into details here. I have noticed some criticism of Maria Pentcheva‘s vibrato (she is the contralto/mezzo prophetess, Ulrica Arfvidsson) but I can’t say that bothered me at all. What did strike me, however, was an uncanny resemblance to Conal Coad. Unkind, I know.

As is so often the way these days, there is only one interval, between acts II and III.  I’m agin that.

The publicity makes much of the production involving “La Fura dels Baus.” I am not sure what exactly this means. The director and designers work with that company, but I didn’t see any naked or semi-naked Catalonians throwing raw meat around or wielding dildos, as has been that company’s wont and was rather my hope. There was a bit of sexy projected imagery, but even that was more buttocks than the other side.

What it mostly seems to mean is a Festival mark-up on the ticket prices, which I discovered to my cost on Monday when I backed up for two more performances. The run is almost completely booked out (other than in the circle) and must have been so before it opened, so I guess this has been a successful strategy for Opera Australia.

4 Responses to “Masked”

  1. DharmaBray Says:

    Yes I think it’s a little unfair Masked Ball seems to have a premium on it compared to the others (and given its a mega international co-production) – maybe to counter the discounting if you buy Sydney Festival multipacks? But I do note circle seats are easily available for quite a few performances.

  2. thoughtsontheatre Says:

    Sounds incredibly interesting. The mannequin-esque look of the folks in the photos is specifically offputting – in an intriguing way.

  3. Ballo 5 | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] up really well, which is not always the case with recordings of things which one has enjoyed live (1, 2, 3 & […]

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