The Birgitta Festival is an interesting annual venture put on by the city of Tallinn, and in 2014 it completes its tenth year. The festival is held in the ruined Convent of St Birgitta, set back from Tallinn Bay and on the banks of the River Pirita. The walls of the convent still stand, but it is temporarily roofed in for the duration of the festival with heavy sheeting, which flaps and rattles in the wind, but it at least keeps the frequent showers off the performers and audience.

Ilya Govzich (Riccardo) and Alexey Isaev (Renato) © Heiti Kruusmaa
Ilya Govzich (Riccardo) and Alexey Isaev (Renato)
© Heiti Kruusmaa

The Festival invites companies from various different countries to come and perform. This year the Helikon Opera, Moscow, brought its cleverly-designed and wittily-directed production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Dmitry Bertman, the director, is well known for his humorous, sardonic approach to political questions in operas, and Ballo gave his imagination plenty of scope. Instead of trying for a late 18th century Boston or Stockholm, he set the opera in the present day, with plenty of topical references to keep the audience alert. Riccardo, sung by Ilya Govzich with a good deal of Verdian artistry, ran a palace full of suited hangers-on, whether as a court or a business venture, it was rather more difficult to tell. Renato, his secretary, played by Aleksei Isaev, did not have the vocal weight of a Dmitri Hvorostovsky (who does?), but brought a convincing interpretation and good Italian pronunciation (avoiding the usual Russian problem of ‘a’ substituting for ‘o’ in unstressed positions), to the role, making the villain more sympathetic than is often the case.

Vocally, however, the night was dominated by the three women principals. Oscar the page, touchingly played by Lydia Svetozarova as the best friend Renato would ever have, sang the taxing coloratura flourishes with great effect, bringing a light-heartedness to the tragic unfolding of the story. Ulrica, sung by Ksenia Viaznikova, was a true contralto with a prodigious lower register, and acted the sorceress at her fortune-telling with mystery and a touch of comedy. Best of all vocally (so far as I could tell through the heavy amplification used throughout the festival) was Elena Mikhaylenko, who could take her Amelia anywhere and win applause: a great example of the Russian Verdi dramatic soprano, with acting skills to match.

Ulrica’s den was depicted as a sleazy dockland dive, making it a matter of courage for Amelia (and the rest of the courtiers) to make their way there to have their fortunes told. Renato’s henchmen treat the fortune teller with contempt and violence, and only the lucky sailor (whose pocket is surreptitiously filled with gold and a commission to fulfil the sorcerer’s prediction) gets away unscathed. Amelia required even more courage to go to the foot of the gallows in search of the magic herb Ulrica has prescribed for her, as this site was nothing more or less than a brothel set about with pimps and whores, where she was clearly taking her life, as well as her virtue (or what was left of it) in her hands.

The sets managed to segue nimbly from one scene to another by means of swivelling tall shutters on spindles, a technique already well established in 18th century theatres and still effective today, especially in a cramped venue where the scenery has to be broken up into small bits and brought in through the abbey’s back door.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> at Birgitta Festival © Heiti Kruusmaa
Un ballo in maschera at Birgitta Festival
© Heiti Kruusmaa

Renato’s denunciation of Amelia and his challenge to Riccardo in the great aria “Eri tu” was dramatic and thrilling, but even more gripping than the conspirators’ machinations was the spectacle of poor Oscar realising the danger into which his beloved master has fallen, while remaining unable to do anything to protect him. As the scene shifted to the ballroom for the opera’s climax, the stage filled with masked figures, with the masks representing a wide range of contemporary celebrities: I spotted Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana and Karl Lagerfeld, while the appearance of Barack Obama (who was to visit Tallinn a couple of weeks later on his way to the NATO summit in Wales) got a light round of applause. At the moment of the assassination, Dmitry Bertman’s production came into its own: the hero lies dying, but his court ignore him. They cluster instead round an enormous cake, hacking off slices and stuffing their faces with icing sugar. This touch of satire brought an effective production, conducted stylishly by Vladimir Ponkin, to an even more effective conclusion.