“I would ask what the management’s drama has in common with mine. The title? No. The poet? No. The period? No. The place? No. The characters? No.”

Diego Torre as Gustav III & José Carbó as Count Ankarström. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.
Diego Torre as Gustav III & José Carbó as Count Ankarström. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

This excerpt from Verdi’s legal proceedings against the management of San Carlo, who were trying to foist changes on Un Ballo in Maschera, came vividly to my mind last night at Sydney Opera House. A co-production with opera houses in Buenos Aires, Brussels, Oslo and Bologna, this staging was a radical reinterpretation of the same opera by the team under Alex Ollé, artistic director of La Fura dels Baus, a cutting-edge Catalan theatrical group. Title and poet may not have been changed, but period, place and characters certainly were. This Sydney Festival event will have excited some and (inevitably) appalled others, but whether for better or worse, it was certainly one of the most memorable productions in Sydney in the past few years.

One of the more controversial developments in opera staging in the last few decades has been the gradual spread of a phenomenon best known by its German name, “Regieoper”. It is indicative that there is no generally agreed English term for it, although pejorative critics often refer to such productions as “Eurotrash”. The practice involves a director “reinterpreting” a canonic work by updating the setting, but leaving the text and music unaltered. Peter Sellars’ Mozart operas are among the best-known examples: in his filmed Così fan tutte, the action is relocated from 18th-century Naples to a 20th-century American diner. At their best, these can be inspired reworkings that make classics newly relevant; at their worst, self-indulgent excess, merely out to shock audiences who grow ever-more jaded by the same moribund repertoire. I’m happy to say that, for me, the present production was definitely in the former category.

Moreover, if ever there was a work whose history legitimated this type of approach, it would be Un Ballo in Maschera. Based on a historical event, the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, Verdi’s opera went through countless changes in period, location and characters due to problems with the censors. When it eventually was premièred, the action was somewhat improbably set in New England at the end of the 17th century; Gustav had become Richard, Count of Warwick and Governor of Boston, and so forth. The present production went back to the original names (though the principle baritone, Renato, was misnamed René on the cast sheet), but the date was brought forward. Much further forward. During the Prelude, images were projected onto the front scrim, with scenes from nature and humanity visible on a naked male figure (think of a James Bond credit sequence). As the music pressed towards the climax, these cinematic scenes turned to images of 20th-century conflict – wars, violence, and the Guy Fawkes mask that has come to symbolise today’s anarchic opposition – and finished with a silver mask growing ever larger in front us, a symbol of totalitarian authority.

The curtain rose on a dystopian future (our future?), with the silver-masked Gustavo (Diego Torre) presiding over some fascistic regime where identical blue suits and raised-arm salutes were the order of the day. Individuality was further blurred by the skin-like head coverings that all characters wore. Despite making them look like aliens, these were masks rather than genetic mutations, as became clear when Amelia (Tamar Iveri) removed hers in Act II (such a genuine emotion as love allowed her humanity to come forth, one supposes). The set involved a number of different-sized three-sided concrete colonnades and metal galleries. Through raising and lowering these in different combinations and with some very artful lighting, the various locations were convincingly portrayed: the sterile court, the slum where the fortune-teller Ulrica (Mariana Pentcheva) plied her trade, Gustavo’s CCTV-dominated dressing room in Act III, and most atmospheric of all, the “place of death” in Act II, featuring emaciated wrecks of humans.

Gustavo’s naïve confidence in his people’s love was particularly risible in this production; aside from the not-so-secret conspirators at court, led by Counts Horn (Jud Arthur) and Ribbing (Richard Anderson), both in purple, the more visible opposition was provided by maskless common folk in Act I scene 2, a cross between the Occupy protestors and the human resistance in The Matrix (a film inevitably brought to mind by the numbers and symbols trailing down the set at this point). As it happened, in this production, Ribbing and Horn (normally among opera’s least-effective conspirators) and their followers are the only ones left alive, standing in gas masks as a poisonous gas leaves the rest of the cast prostrate.

Still, no matter how interesting the staging, an opera production stands or falls by its singers, and we were not let down. Diego Torre was vocally resplendent as Gustavo, and in Tamar Iveri, his not-quite adulterous interest, he found a worthy counterpart (although momentarily shockingly flat on her first top C) – particularly in their duet in Act II, which was one of the highlights of the evening. In the role of her vengeful on-stage husband, Renato, José Carbó was thoroughly convincing. Taryn Fiebig as Oscar (the name was retained although the trouser role was “refrocked” i.e. she played a she) sparkled in her operetta-like numbers. Mariana Pentcheva was excellent in the lower register, but the width of her vibrato rendered things a bit pitch-approximate higher up. The chorus delivered in its usual effective fashion. The direction from Andrea Molino was mostly efficient: a few moments of imperfect coordination (for instance, in Fiebig’s first number) were more than compensated for by crisp playing elsewhere (the Act II trio stood out for me).

This, as it happens, is my first five-star review, which, according to the criteria Bachtrack gives, means “an event that you will remember happily and be talking about in five years’ time”. It wasn’t perfect by any means – but boy was it fascinating. Ask me again in 2018.

A Masked BallDavid Larkin reviews Alex Olle's production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the Sydney Opera House5