London’s parks are its lungs, and this time of year they are bursting with music.
If you fancy some delightful Verdi to accompany a long summer’s evening, then take yourself to Holland Park for this outstanding production of A Masked Ball (Un Ballo in Maschera), writes Christopher Walker.
Talented designer Takis has hit the nail on the head, creating a wonderful evening of entertainment, while young conductor Matthew Kofi coaxes superb performances from an excellent cast.
Holland Park was once dominated by a fabulous mansion, Holland House, that was destroyed in a German bombing raid during the Blitz.
The ruins were bought by London County Council and they provide a romantic, haunting backdrop to the Holland Park Opera Company.
Founded in 1996 on a wing and a prayer – it was originally funded by the local council’s Library & Arts budget – the company delivers outstanding work year after year.
The first opera ever performed was A Masked Ball, so it is wonderful to see it revived again, now in such a refreshing, skilful, production.
The plot is a rich one filled with murder and intrigue, all based on real events which were just within living memory when Verdi was writing.
The assassination of the Swedish King Gustav in the middle of a fabulous, masked costume ball.
Although thus set in Stockholm, it was originally commissioned by the Naples Opera, and in this production it certainly has a strong Neapolitan touch, with the King resembling a Godfather-like figure, and his courtiers so many sharp-suited gangsters.
The King is sung beautifully by Adriano Graziani, who has a strong, powerful voice which puts others in the shade. He is a dominating stage presence and conveys the sense of male privilege run wild well.
The real Gustav was a complex character of mixed political reputation, which makes his Mafioso portrayal all too believable. He was also of mixed sexuality, a fact Verdi alludes to. So as well as Gustav falling for Amelia, he is never far from a winsome youth – Oscar.
Oscar is a soprano role, and in this production is sung jauntily by Alison Langer. She is just right.
On stage, Gustav’s shady reputation has led him to have many enemies within his court, and it is only his fiercely loyal friend Anckarstromn (George Von Bergen) who stands between him and them.
The only problem is that Gustav’s love, Amelia, is Anckarstrom’s wife.
Amelia was performed by the understudy the night I saw it, and I can report that young artist Nadine Benjamin brought the house down.
She has a beautiful, sweet voice, and she will go far. Another show-stealer is veteran Rosalind Plowright, who sings the eerie role of the medium Madame Arvidson.
King Gustav really did go to consult this creepy, satanical, fortune teller, who warned him of the murder plot against him.
I have seen this piece half a dozen times, and I have never seen so wonderful an Arvidson, thanks as much to designer Takis’ incredible costume as to Ms Plowright’s fabulous performance, with touches of Maleficent in her veiled headdress.
Concealment is central to this opera. The plotters are hiding their real intentions from the King. He and Amelia hide their love from everyone.
Oscar’s own passion for the King is obviously concealed, while Gustav and his cronies go to consult Madame Arvidson all in disguise.
When Amelia and Gustav are later surprised by the plotters, she disguises herself to escape. The masks and costumes in the final ball scene are thus a wonderful finale to an evening of concealment.
The theme that fateful night was black, and this is faithfully represented in the costumes. Holland Park is a perfect way for any of us to enjoy opera at a fraction of the cost of the main houses, and at just as high a level.
This production is one of their best, and compulsory viewing for all fans of Verdi. Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi plays at Holland Park Opera.