Vincent Boussard sets his Liceu production of Un ballo in maschera in a cavernous black void framed at times in white, lending the production a dark, sinister atmosphere. A forestage set outside this frame with an omnipresent Fauteuil-type armchair, perhaps alluding to the empty throne of a murdered king, the stage “interior” absolutely minimalist with the back projection of a visage (Gustav III of Sweden, whose assassination inspired the opera) contemplating the unfolding drama.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> © A. Bofill
Un ballo in maschera
© A. Bofill

With this backdrop, Guido Levi’s lighting works hard to reveal and illuminate the characters, especially as most of the time they themselves are dressed in dark greys or black. Christian Lacroix dresses the cast and chorus in a mix of contemporary fashion and 18th-century chic (the sequinned frock coat of Riccardo distinguishing him as the Count) until the ball, when period party attire becomes de riguer. It is the only moment where the stage lightens enough to see the splendidly costumed unmasked guests, with a contrastingly masked Tom, Samuel and Renato. The last keeps his Tarantino-style hitman suit, providing a theatrical contrast for Riccardo’s tragic end.

It is an anodyne staging that has been pared back to the minimum and lacks the props and scenery that other more opulent productions are famous for. There are at times puzzling moments. Riccardo sits with his back to the audience during the prelude, while the male chorus sings of his imminent arrival. There is the occasional trickle of blood red tears down the background visage along with a radio-controlled model Ferrari in Act 3, circling around the assembled characters. However, this visual simplicity sometimes succeeds by suggestion. The image of a ghoulish female cadaver hanging high over centre-stage as a macabre chandelier, while Amelia searches for the magic herbs on gallows hill, is surprising.

Dolora Zajick (Ulrica), Piotr Beczała (Riccardo) and Elena Sancho Pereg (Oscar) © A. Bofill
Dolora Zajick (Ulrica), Piotr Beczała (Riccardo) and Elena Sancho Pereg (Oscar)
© A. Bofill

In Ballo, Verdi uses musical metaphor to mirror the Dionysian theme of comedy and tragedy in musical counterpose. Renato Palumbo directed the musical narrative with rigorous energy and could be seen clearly cueing the ensemble and singers to maintain rhythmic flow. This resulted in a precise interpretation of the work, though the orchestral volume was an issue in most parts of the performance.

The two male protagonists, Piotr Beczała as Riccardo and Carlos Álvarez as Renato, were the outstanding performances for the evening. Beczała produced a noble and romantic characterization of the tragic count. Highlights included his duet with Amelia at the beginning of Act 2, whose famous high “C” finish was carried through with aplomb and his aria “Ma se m'è forza perderti” in Act 3 was well sung with good expression.

Carlos Álvarez (Renato) and Piotr Beczała (Riccardo) © A. Bofill
Carlos Álvarez (Renato) and Piotr Beczała (Riccardo)
© A. Bofill

Álvarez sang a convincing Renato, the deceived husband full of anger and vengeance. For his aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima”, in condemnation of Riccardo, he produced his customary rich Verdian baritone with a vocal presence that matched the vigorous orchestra, receiving the longest ovation of the evening. Keri Alkema made her Liceu debut in the role of Amelia, offering a competent performance. Mezzo Dolora Zajick performed Ulrica with great stage presence, but showed difficulties in projection, particularly in the middle of her range when some lines were lost in the orchestral rumble.

Elena Sancho Pereg performed a lively Cherubino-esque Oscar, with the characteristic vocal agility of the role. She sang her signature aria “Volta la terrea” with well executed coloratura. Roman Ialcic and Antonio Di Matteo as bass conspirators Samuel and Tom complemented each other, and the stalking cello and bass lines, with fine performances throughout.

***11