Thursday 25 April 2013

Verdi's A Masked Ball (or Ballo)

King's Head Theatre, London


New english version by Adam Spreadbury-Maher

New piano versio by Luca Tieppo

Becca Marriott

Opera Up Close’s production of Ballo, a new interpretation of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, (in Italian Un Ballo in Maschera) is brought bang up to date, with the action translated from 18th century Stockholm, to today’s London, specifically the North Circular Road near Wembley and to a large eponymous Swedish owned furniture store to be found there, complete with distinctive blue and yellow branding and product names so obscure that the word Ballo could just as easily refer to their latest sofa range. In this production however, Ballo is the name of the store.

The satire that underlies this work is cleverly crafted. To take the grand setting of a classic opera and reduce it to the mundanity of a suburban furniture store has echoes of the genius that underpinned The Office television series in which a minute examination of the humdrum routines of daily ordinary working life provided a rich seam of comedy. Where Ballo entertains even further is in the sheer breathtaking abilities of its performers.

The scope of this production is wonderfully and sensibly compacted to fit the tight constraints of the meltingly warm Kings Head performance space. Ben Woodward on keyboards provides the only musical accompaniment and it is a credit to his remarkable ability that he matches and leads the singers perfectly.

The original tale is set in the court of King Riccardo and tells of the love that grows between him and Amelia, the wife of his close friend Renato.  Also present in Riccardo’s court are his loyal fop Oscar, Tom, a courtier with a lurking grievance and astrologer Ulrica. These characters have evolved into the furniture store Manager (Riccardo) and various other jobs around the shop and warehouse, with Amelia employed as a checkout girl. The staging is simple using desks and occasionally, flat-pack furniture. With a planned tryst in the store car park at midnight being cleverly suggested with bulkhead lights and brilliant floodlights this production’s attention to detail on what is clearly is a tiny budget, is remarkable.

But it is the vocal performances of this company that astound. There is not a weak moment between them, rather numerous instances of excellence. Martin Milne’s immaculate male soprano sports an impressive budgie-smuggling costume bulge for the final scene that is at odds with his evident talent amongst the eye-wateringly highest of octaves. Dickon Gough’s resonantly baritone Tom is a modest part beautifully delivered, his testosterone fuelled voice emphasising almost every word with a vicious relish. When he mistakenly accuses Riccardo and Amelia of having been dogging in the car park, the anticipation with which he savours spreading such malicious gossip around the store is almost palpable. Ulrica, a customer service telephonist who moonlights during office hours providing a premium-rate telephone astrology line shows Olivia Barry at her accomplished best.

The triangle of betrayed friends and lovers is completed with Edward Hughes’ Riccardo, Becca Marriott as his paramour and Christopher Jacklin as her husband. Hughes has the swagger of Matt Lucas and the voice of a tenor angel. Marriott’s arias are frequently spine-tingling whilst Jacklin’s classy portrayal of a man emotionally betrayed by friend and wife is initially heart-rending, evolving into chilling as he plots his murderous revenge.

The libretto is a new translation by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Luca Tieppo’s arrangement of the score has blended in some nods to ABBA for the final masked ball scene at the store party.

This is not a show for prudish purists. On the other hand, if you are new to the concept of opera or broad minded enough to enjoy a ridiculously talented cast pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptability, whilst singing their hearts out, then Ballo is a must see.

Runs to 25 May

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