If you had received an invitation to a masked ball at which there turned out to be no masks and no dancing, it's understandable you'd feel disappointed. Thus it turned out at Opera North's first ever production of Un ballo in maschera in a strangely unmoving staging by Tim Albery, mounted for the return of former music director Richard Farnes, who has always wanted to conduct the piece. Despite a boisterous account of Verdi's score resounding – often quite loudly – from the pit, vocal performances were distinctly below par, making for an underwhelming evening.

Rafael Rojas (Gustavo) and Adrienn Miksch (Amelia) © Clive Barda
Rafael Rojas (Gustavo) and Adrienn Miksch (Amelia)
© Clive Barda

Hannah Clark's designs appear to set us somewhere in the 1940s. Conspirators gather during the prelude, wearing trench coats and ill-fitting, baggy suits. Ulrica, looking like a member of La Résistance, wears a beret and delivers her consultations in a seedy room draped in crimson curtains. Magic herbs drop in from the flies to create the gallows scene, along with a series of chairs to which handcuffs are attached. When Anckarström clumsily shines a lamp into his wife's eyes as the curtain falls on Act 2, it appears we're in an interrogation room. Verdi's score here is genius, Anckarström's horror at realising his wife is in love with the king contrasting with the conspirators' amusement at the situation. Albery completely misses the black humour though, Counts Horn and Ribbing and their cronies as deadpan as bank clerks.

Adrienn Miksch (Amelia), Phillip Rhodes (Anckarström), Stephen Richardson and Dean Robinson © Clive Barda
Adrienn Miksch (Amelia), Phillip Rhodes (Anckarström), Stephen Richardson and Dean Robinson
© Clive Barda

The moody look dissipates for the ball scene where the guests are in powdered wigs and whitened faces; a stylish, stylised effect – especially with Oscar suddenly donning a dress. But the peril of unexpected encounters on the ballroom floor is dashed when chorus members have to traipse off to the next room to dance because the stage is littered with sofas. This leaves characters conducting their dangerous liaisons on an empty stage, hushed encounters that are supposed to take place in a crowded room.

Rafael Rojas appeared to be having an off night as King Gustavo, vocally tiring by Act 3. His tone is bright – like someone doing an impression of Giuseppe Di Stefano – but his unwieldy tenor threatened to come off the rails in snarled top notes. Phillip Rhodes' baritone is a size too small for Anckarström, his great aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima” lacking juice and legato phrasing. Adrienn Miksch has a striking soprano, though with a narrow core which, under pressure, shook violently in climaxes. Her occluded tone marred an otherwise heartfelt “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”.

Tereza Gevorgyan (Oscar), Rafael Rojas (Gustavo) and Patricia Bardon (Ulrica) © Clive Barda
Tereza Gevorgyan (Oscar), Rafael Rojas (Gustavo) and Patricia Bardon (Ulrica)
© Clive Barda

Patricia Bardon was a doughty Ulrica, but both Ribbing and Horn were underpowered. The vocal highlight was Armenian soprano Tereza Gevorgyan's jaunty Oscar, superbly vibrant, coloratura thrown off with ease. Her pageboy, though, didn't seem the brightest spark, failing to question why the king's hat and coat were on the floor of the Anckarströms' home when he arrives to deliver the masked ball invitations.

Richard Farnes drew ebullient playing from the Orchestra of Opera North, reaching an ecstatic orgasm at the climax of the love duet in which the harp was a prominent interloper. There was a lovely, mournful cor anglais commentary in Amelia's “Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa” and the timpani at the drawing of lots to determine who assassinates the king fired off like rifle shots. Sadly, however, this was an evening where there were more misfires than hits.  

**111