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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
06/26/2009 -  & June 29*, July 2, 5 (matinee), 8, 11 (m), 17
Giuseppe Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
Ramón Vargas (Riccardo), Angela Marambio (Amelia), Dalibor Jenis (Renato), Elena Manistina (Ulrica), Anna Christy (Oscar), Giovanni Battista Parodi (Samuel), Vuyani Mlinde (Tom), Changhan Lim (Silvano), Martyn Hill (Judge), Neil Gillespie (Amelia's servant)
Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House, Maurizio Benini (Conductor)
Sergio Tramonti (set design), David Harvey (lighting), Marco Martone (Director), Daniel Dooner (Revival Director)

R. Vargas (© ROH, Covent Garden)

Curtain calls during the show. I keep thinking the modern world snuffed them out, like polio, but every now and then, out a singer pops, bouquet in hand. I was thinking about them as Elena Manistina's Ulrica badly timed her bows just as we were all shuffling out for ice cream. Like those martyrdom announcements for singers still going on but who-want-the-world-to-know-how-ill-they-still-are, or belting out a Brindisi with one foot on a step, asking for praise mid-show is one of those bad habits that only exists in opera. Hypocritically, I still love spontaneous applause for great singing but coming out halfway through, asking for it, looks like needy insecurity. You would have thought film director Marco Martone would have stamped that out on day one.

And yes, she was very good. Organ toned mezzos don't grow on trees and Manistina fitted a cast that aimed for, and very nearly achieved, old school Verdi singing. Martone certainly gives Ulrica plenty of scenery to chew. His visually stunning if unwieldy update to Civil War America got a sniffy reaction back in 2005. At the time, I was unimpressed with the plush, detached singing and Pappano's blowsy approach, but revivals have been kinder and better cast to Martone cinematic view. It will be always known as the mirror production, thanks to the tour-de-force final scene. And sometimes you get the impression that Martone spent more time framing the stage than wondering what to do with his cast.

I genuinely do like this production but it is a victim of its own cinematic excess: the sets take an age to change. One hour in we take a half hour break, then meander back and gawp at the sheer fabulousness of the gallows scene. That set, the size, that love duet...'Oh, it's time for another half hour tea break. Already?' It is a bit of a passion killer to be honest. Still, when Sergio Tramonti's vast mirror is hoisted in to position, Martone performs the theatrical equivalent of a Scorsese tracking shot or John Frankenheimer's split screen. Even on its third outing, it is still a real oooh aaah moment for us, the audience, as we play hunt the assassin on various split levels and angles. It's the money shot and I would happily rewind to see it again, especially with Ramón Vargas singing.

Vargas is the draw on this occasion. Always a fine tenor, as a stage actor Vargas is usually content just to smile benignly, vaguely aware that acting is just something that happens to other people. Here, he surprised me by his energetic portrait of the Count. He's still not Paddy Considine but he threw himself around here like an eager puppy, larking around in disguise and being life and soul of the party. It is a great role dramatically, which too few tenors realise, and Vargas was canny enough to flesh out these tirelessly vain, incompetent leader. More interested in inviting beautiful women than being warned that he is in constant danger of being assassinated, he doesn't worry about betraying his friend for very long, just so long as he is popular with his people. Vargas played him as a sort of benevolent Berlusconi, if such an oxymoron can be imagined. Vocally too, he was at the top of his game, with no tightness to his voice, just a soaring and ringing Verdian line, acutely aware of dynamics and text. After an evening playing such a happy-go-lucky type, Vargas stopped time itself with a heartbreakingly sincere 'Ma se m'è forza perderti'.

For his love interest, Covent Garden, amazingly, appear to have found a genuine spinto soprano. A name new to me, the Chilean soprano Angela Marambio possesses a giant voice with that fabled touch of steel to her timbre. She impressed most with her soft singing, like with her beautifully modulated 'Morro, ma primo in grazia' but she needs to be careful elsewhere. Her voice is good enough not to need forcing but, under pressure, the upper range of her voice got squally, disobedient and just loud.

As her husband, Dalibor Jenis had the opposite problem. A good actor and, clearly, a fine full throttle performer, his voice opens out impressively into an 'Old Met' style baritone but the many intimate and conversational moments turned his voice cloudy and unfocused, like in the flute and harp accompanied middle section of 'Eri tu'. Instead of giving us the softest, quietest cantabile line possible, Jenis became cloddy and prosaic.

Anna Christy was a fine Oscar, singing prettily and with accuracy but her voice tended to get drowned out in big ensembles. Still, she found lots to do as Riccardo loyal, unquestioning page, meddling and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Both conspirators, Samuel and Tom, were exceptionally well cast with proper basses. Not growling baritones but proper cavernous, graphite toned basses, the sort that we don't hear anymore in big Verdi roles, let alone tiny supporting roles like these. Vuyani Mlinde, especially, with his stove pipe hat and tiny frame, was like a smiling beam of malice, his cruel laughter at the humiliated Renato ringing very hollow indeed.

Maurizio Benini gave us more than just an efficient run through. It was a very nostalgic view of the score, with lots of portamenti in the strings, muted trumpets riding Verdi's ensembles and a zingy way with the many jaunty choruses. Only his ponderous tempi for a couple of arias let the side down. So all in all, a decent revival of a production both lauded and cursed for its sets, with a cast doing a remarkably good impression of bygone Verdi singing. Catch it for Vargas and that money shot.

Barnaby Rayfield



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