Ballo (or 'A Masked Ball')

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While OperaUpClose has made a name for itself with its stripped-down productions, this one must be its most minimal yet, consisting of just six singers, a piano, a flat-pack table and a few strips of masking tape to depict the path around Ballo – a furniture store that closely resembles a certain Swedish one off the North Circular. This wouldn’t be a problem except that Verdi’s original opera, ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ (‘A Masked Ball’), is of mammoth musical proportions, with large interactive choruses and bombastic orchestration. In their absence, this version by director Adam Spreadbury-Maher relies on virtuosic singing and convincing drama – neither available in-store.

Inexplicably, the evening begins with a cut-and-paste graphic synopsis of the plot, which is surely only a spoiler for what is about to unfold in this off-the-wall yet faithful rendition of the tale of forbidden love, betrayal and revenge.

The cast wear various combinations of the blue and yellow company colours, which, while amusing as a motif, is left unexploited to any dramatic effect. Indeed, the first half is played almost entirely for laughs. The libretto, adapted by Speadbury-Maher, has even been amended to incorporate lyrics to complement the Abba tunes hilariously interpolated into the score. This, however, makes the change of gear into full-blown tragedy, an ambiguous transition.

In this second cast, highlights include some great character acting from confident, helium-fuelled countertenor Alan Richardson (as the spectacularly effete PA, Oscar), mezzo Emelie Joenniemi as the part-time astrologer Ulrica, and Dickon Gough as cleaner Tom (a true Verdi bass – would be a great Sparafucile in ‘Rigoletto’). Paul Featherstone is solid as the boss Riccardo; and while Laura Hudson, as straying wife Amelia, and Mark Holland, as her jealous husband Renato, give committed performances, both tend to push whenever possible, becoming shrill and distorted – a general tendency that also afflicts the ensemble pieces.

Some nice touches, though – masks for the audience and pianist Ben Woodward swapping his baby grand for an electronic keyboard at the final masked ball – or, in this case, office party. Much to enjoy. Jonathan Lennie

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