Review: Un ballo in maschera

Simon Hale enjoys the Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Birmingham Hippodrome
Welsh National Opera
March 8th

The curtain rises to reveal a long black coffin and a tableau of mourners in top hats and tails. It’s a solemn occasion until the coffin lid suddenly opens and out pops the central character in the opera – happily reading a book.

This is the arresting and intriguing start to Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) as performed in a brand-new production by Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome.

The work is based on the real-life assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792 but because regicide represented on stage was forbidden in his day, Verdi moved the action to Colonial Boston. WNO director David Pountney takes the action back to the true location, hence the rousing chorus of citizens waving giant yellow and blue flags, even though the names of the characters haven’t changed.

That same red book that Gwyn Hughes Jones as Governor Riccardo (Gustavus) keeps flicking through gives a clue as to his intention of creating an opera within an opera. It’s an ingenious device by the director to reveal the events and psychology behind his murder and his feelings for those responsible.

The story is expressed in glorious gothic horror. Macbeth is just one influence as Riccardo ignores the deathly prophecy of the fortune teller Ulrica (Sarah Fulgoni) whose acolytes sing and dance dressed as skeletons with axes through their heads and swords through their spines, while sticking pins in voodoo dolls.

Ghoulishness aside, there’s a deeply touching love story with Riccardo in love with Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams), the wife of his trusted adviser and best friend Renato (Roland Wood), all set against a backdrop of conspiracy. When Amelia visits Ulrica to find a cure for her passion for Riccardo, she is told to visit a set of gallows at midnight where she will find a curing herb. What she finds is Riccardo and the two go on to sing the most beautiful of love duets.

With its themes of love, deception and murder, moveable panels successfully create a split stage on which the audience, but not certain characters, can follow all the machinations. It’s a pity the stage hands nodding their instructions to each rather spoilt the effect (there seemed to be enough cast to handle the job).

When Renato stumbles upon the couple, Amelia finally feels compelled to remove the veil she has placed over her face to hide her identity to Renato and two conspirators. His thoughts of murdering his wife turn to whom he really feels responsible for his shame and he enters a ghoulish lottery to be the killer. That leads us to a ghoulish ball where a dance macabre is about to end in horror – while not necessarily leaving us all the wiser.

Sarah Fulgoni could have brought more of the sinister to Ulrica, but this is an otherwise outstanding production with singing and acting of the highest quality from all the main characters. That’s not forgetting Julie Martin du Thiel in the trouser role of Oscar the page who brings welcome humour as an impish go-between. Excellent too is the WNO Orchestra under Carlo Rizzi in performing Verdi’s tuneful and stirring score.

Welsh National Opera returns to Birmingham Hippodrome from November 5th to 9th for performances of Carmen, Rigoletto and The Cunning Little Vixen. It’s worth booking now on 0844 338 5000 (

WNO will perform Un ballo in maschera at Milton Keynes Theatre on March 27th, Theatre Royal Plymouth on April 3rd, Bristol Hippodrome on April 10th, and Venue Cymru, Llandudno on April 24th.

Pics – Bill Cooper