Review: Un Ballo In Maschera (La Fura dels Baus, Opera Australia)

V for Verdi, V for Vendetta: in this dark take on dictatorship, terrorism and betrayal, everyone wears a mask.

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Diego Torre as Gustav III and José Carbó as Count Ankarström. Photo by Lisa ...
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Mariana Pentcheva as Ulrica Arfvidsson and Diego Torre as Gustav III. Photo by Prudence Upton.
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Tamar Iveri as Amelia and Diego Torre as Gustav III. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

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Anyone who saw their landmark staging of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in Adelaide in 2010 will know that Catalan "street theatre" company La Fura dels Baus take no prisoners. So who better to tackle Un Ballo In Maschera, Verdi’s operatic tale of dictatorship, conspiracy and assassination? On last night's showing, Opera Australia can take plenty of credit for their part in creating a visually stunning, musically first-rate and dramatically provocative production.

Director Alex Ollé has taken as inspiration both Verdi’s struggle with 19th-century political censorship and the horrors of modern day totalitarianism. His sinister world, with its marginalisation of women, is redolent of Margaret Attwood’s post-apocalyptic novel Handmaid’s Tale. Its closeted court reflects the claustrophobic sycophancy of the last days of Hitler. In Ollé’s world, everyone wears a mask (required by law?), from the influential elite to the dispossessed protester on the streets. Alfons Flores’ brutal yet paradoxically beautiful concrete sets create clinical spaces for the rich to display their power. Conversely, the poor are provided with shadowy regions on the margins of the stage, where they brood and agitate – echoes of the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movements abound. Lighting and some jaw-dropping three-dimensional projection work add to the atmosphere of lurking danger.

Musically, this is a night to remember, with standout performances from all concerned. If Mexican tenor Diego Torre lacks the dynamic charisma to carry off the King’s playful and frivolous side, he makes up for it in vocal spades, his powerful voice flinging out Verdi’s top notes with ease. His Amelia is played by Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri, who puts in a performance of enormous dramatic and vocal sympathy. Her generous tone carried all before it with an upper range to match Torre in their thrilling love duet. The moment when they mutually unmask is heart-stopping theatre. José Carbó is her hapless husband, managing the transition from the King’s most loyal friend to vengeful assassin with dramatic aplomb. Vocally he was on terrific form, his warm baritone firm throughout the range.

The secondary roles were equally distinguished. Taryn Fiebig’s smaller, agile soprano was heard to great effect in a performance of considerable charm, although her bubbly character felt oddly out of kilter with the grim phalanx of bureaucrats surrounding her master. As the arch conspirators (the somewhat ludicrously named Counts Ribbing and Horn), Richard Anderson and Jud Arthur make a convincingly malevolent double act. Their trio with Carbó and ensemble contributions are notably fine. Mariana Pentcheva plays the soothsayer Ulrica as an urban evangelist, her rich mezzo projecting with ease.

Andrea Molino’s thoroughly idiomatic reading of Verdi’s score is electric, fully alert to the sophisticated musical moments that prefigure later works like Don Carlo and Aida. His visceral interpretation packs a real dramatic punch, yet he pulls back and supports his singers with sensitive rubato when required. There were some lovely orchestral solos as well. The Opera Australia Chorus is on fine form as the regime’s faceless men and women.

A magnificent start to the 2013 season for Opera Australia with an important piece of work that, like all great art, provokes a response. And watch out for Ollé’s final coup de théâtre – it literally brings the house down.

Un Ballo In Maschera is at Sydney Opera House until February 12 and then Melbourne from April 12 to May 3

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