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REVIEW: A Masked Ball | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

Giuseppe Verdi has rarely seemed more alive than in this startling new production, a world premiere via Opera Australia. A pretty score gives way to truly dark, truly contemporary, ideas.

The cast of A Masked Ball | Joan Sutherland Theatre

Like most things, it sounds better in Verdi’s native tongue: Un Ballo In Maschera. Being Verdi, exceedingly pretty music is a hallmark. Sometimes, it’s so attractive it is an enemy of any dramatic tension. But it’s a good problem to have.

A Masked Ball is, in truth, an opera, Verdi’s last, based on an opera. Well, a libretto based on a libretto. While Verdi’s librettist was Antonio Somma, Somma was inspired by Eugene Scribe, a playwright (could there be a better name for one) who penned the libretto (albeit in five acts, rather than Somma’s three) for Daniel Auber’s 1833 work Gustav III. Much as Hollywood sees dollar signs when its operatives spy an opportunity to apply the phrase “based on a true story”, Scribe was writing about the assassination, 41 years prior, of the Swedish king who was shot at a masked ball. So, no, the United States doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on political conspiracy.

Somma’s version appeared a quarter of a century after Scribe’s and was, albeit for reasons not entirely of his making, radically different. So it’s fitting that, 150-odd years later, Opera Australia — in partnership with Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, La Monnaie, Brussels, the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, Oslo, Teatro Comunale di Bologna and, above all, Catalonian company La Fura dels Baus — should represent such a radical departure, at least visually. In fact, the original Somma-Verdi version was roundly censored on political grounds.

Happily, for his enduring reputation, if unhappily for him, Verdi ended up in a protracted legal battle over the censor’s rulings: a less romantic, more mercenary side of the business of opera. So we can admire him for his resolve, principles, determination and strength of character, as well as his lavishly beautiful musical legacy. Fortunately, save for the odd self-imposed transgression, along similar lines, by the likes of Casula Powerhouse (I won’t be so obvious as to detail the Bill Henson debacle), we’re not subject, to any pronounced degree one trusts, to these kinds of paternalistic strictures.

As to the present production, I would declare it visually and aurally splendiferous. The vision is a grand one and is executed on that scale. Director Alex Olle has interpolated 21st century digital technology into mid-19th century theatre, by way of, for example, superimposed 3D projection of a gold mask, which grows ever larger and comes ever closer. Some may dismiss it as a cheap thrill, but should you find yourself in need of an extra-dimensional fix at least it saves on admission to The Hobbit. And even if you should disagree with this decision, you surely have to admire Alfons Flores starkly futuristic set, well-met by Lluc Castells costumes and Urs Schonebaum’s lighting.

When I say futuristic, I mean in the speculative, prescient way of, say, Fritz Lang. The aesthetic is grey and concrete, not unlike the pseudo-Soviet lining of the Sydney Opera House “sails”. More seriously, though, the dying days of the Reich and the decadence that prefigured such are also embodied and referenced. But his Gustav presides over a more corporatised, if no less sinister kingdom: more Commonwealth Bank than Palace of Versailles. This new kind of regent, a CEO no less unpalatable or absolutist than Louis XIV, is one with which we’re all-too-eerily familiar, of course.

For mine, that mask, that anonymous spectre, is a powerfully menacing motif, emblematic of the endemic propensity of contemporary sociopolitical forces, as profound as gravity, to strip us of colour, character, individuality and freedom. By all means, call me cynical, dismiss me as a paranoid conspiracist, but this seems to me to be the disposition of the director and designers as well. There are many ripe parallels between Verdi’s real-life struggles and those of our own recent past but, first, to the music.

Perhaps it’s Andrea Molino’s Italian birth that gives him what sounds like an extraordinary affinity with Verdi; he seems to know the vernacular of his music much as an intimate, confidante or contemporary might. However he achieves it, he achieves it: he leads the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in a meticulous, lustrous reading, informed by a warmth, fluidity and sense of spontaneity that are inextricably characteristic of the composer’s style. Better yet, there seemed to be a palpable rapport between conductor and singers, with Molino intuiting when to push forward, when to pause for an extra beat and when to pull back.

All vocalists, local and imported, seem to be on their finest mettle. Richard Anderson’s Count Ribbing shows his bass baritone to powerful effect and, dramatically, as arch conspirator agains Gustavo, he is convincingly malignant. His co-conspirator, another count, Horn, shows Jud Arthur to be his match in both departments. With their one-size-fits-all cranial coverings (vaguely reminiscent of villainous Klingons; redolent of the robotic Kryten in Red Dwarf), they look especially cold, stripped of some of their essential humanity. One can’t help but be put in mind of the infamous faceless men, of still topical ill-repute. As such, after a fashion, this could be a witting, or unwitting, slow-motion musical replay of the Gillard coup d’etat.

While the plotters devise their dirtiest of all deeds, we are distracted by the debauched spectacle of the reigning monarch swooning when he learns, from his faithful page Oscar, that a bit of skirt he half-fancies is on the guest list for the forthcoming masked ball. That Amelia is married to his closest friend and ally (Rene, Count Ankarstrom, his secretary of state) barely troubles his conscience; though he feign it so, he appears utterly disingenuous. This scenario brings to the fore three almost incomparable voices and, again, I’m pleased to report, voices matched by a capacity to convey their characters. The role of Gustavo is more than filled by the celebrated Mexican-born tenor Diego Torre whose vocals, make no mistake, rival Pavarotti for suppleness and tonality. The abundance of Jose Carbo’s baritone in the guise of Rene counterpoints excellently.

Taryn Fiebig was sounding effortlessly ample as well; it’s as if each of the singers was spurring the others on to their absolute best. She also lent an engagingly impish quality to her character. As Amelia, Tbilisi-born Tamar Iveri had the unenviable assignment of equalling Torre, not least in the duet in which they declare their love for each other. Her production was clean, clear, bright and dynamic. If that sounds a little like laundry detergent, it’s not meant to. But where the last may be lemon-fresh, Iveri’s is the lush, lime-tinged colour of a big Australian chardonnay, and the flavour of ripe peaches, melons and citrus, but with smoky, oaky notes and intangibles borne of her Georgian terroir.

My only reservation pertained to Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mariana Pentcheva as Ulrica, the reviled fortune-teller. In her first scene, her voice seemed pent-up and reticent, but later blossomed to fulfil what’s really, as I understand it, a contralto part, as if born and trained to do so. Of course, these days, mezzos are expected to “cover” for contraltos and vice-versa, but the vice-versa seems much less common and I ask, where have all the contraltos gone?

Verdi was born 200 years ago (this October, the 10th). With Un Ballo In Maschera, La Fura dels Baus, via Opera Australia, has given him a present. And us. It’s the world premiere. We get to see it first. Australia really is the lucky country.

The details: A Masked Ball plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until February 12 and moves to Melbourne for a season from April 12. Tickets on the company website.

The cast of A Masked Ball | Joan Sutherland Theatre

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