I was chagrined to find that my Night at the Opera was to coincide with the reality opera of the national tally room in the vote-counting for Australia’s federal election. The human drama of triumphs, disappointments, counterfeit forbearance and dummy spits usually makes for entertainment on a grand scale, even without the singing.
But A Masked Ball proved a fitting substitute, particularly through its strongly political themes of intrigue, self-fulfilling prophesy and character assassination. There was even the parallel of an adulterous public figure getting the bullet from a critical public.
This original Australian Opera production, almost 20 years old, has worn well, the chosen ensemble of performers backed by orchestra and chorus giving an energetic and absorbing interpretation.
Verdi’s opera fell into trouble with the censors before its first airing, with the result that the plot line of the assassination of a Swedish king had to be changed to of all places, pre-revolutionary Boston, in the form of plotting against a colonial governor. If Verdi had heard of Australia he may even have thought of setting the story Down Under during an election campaign.
Mercifully, the original intent has been well and truly restored in this production, and we are treated to a feast of opulent costuming and sets, summoning up the court of an 18th Century absolutist monarch.
The audience is teased with views of the throne room through a gauze curtain during the playing of the overture, and the lifting of the curtain provides a feast for the eyes. The sets of John Gunther and costumes of Michael Stennett are dazzling, complemented by Nigel Levings’ lighting design. Each of the contrasting scenes: court, fortune-teller’s lair, gallows graveyard, palace interiors and the ballroom is impressive.
Director John Wregg has succeeded in applying the original scheme of John Cox, with many clever touches and great feats of organisation, although a number of the settings seem rather static, and, wonderful as it is to have a full choral sound, there often seem too many bodies on stage. The final scene of the famous masked ball itself is more like a modern disco in terms of the press of bodies, and with little room to move, the dancing, such as it is, is passive and stilted.
Conductor Richard Divall does well to command the large orchestra and vocal ensemble. The complex dynamics work well, the only disappointment a near-drowning of the tenor in the climax of the grand court scene of Act 1. The overall sound from orchestra and chorus is magnificent. Particularly memorable is the percussion work.
Brisbane audiences are treated to some splendid vocal performances. Bulgarian tenor Kaludi Kaludow is a commanding King Gustavus, his beautiful tenor voice enrapturing his listeners. He is well-matched by Rosamund Illing as Amelia, the woman he illicitly loves. Kaludow and Illing sing a stunning duet at the start of Act 2, one of the vocal highlights of the night.
Barry Anderson as deceived secretary-of-state Anckarstroem started a little shakily on opening night but was well into the swing of things by the second act and gave a strong performance overall. Peter Axford and Harry Coghill act menacingly and sing powerfully as the two conspirators, while Irene Waugh as the fortune teller and Stuart Neilson-Kemp as the chief justice make worthy contributions.
Jason Barry-Smith sings well in his cameo role, and fellow Queensland Con graduate Leanne Kenneally is dazzling as the king’s page, Oscar, almost upstaging the entire court with her zesty personality and thrilling vocals.