Un ballo in maschera is one of Verdi’s classic audience treats, a mixture of brilliant love and menacing darkness shot through with (often the bitterest) comedy. Like RigolettoBallo sees the course of true love punished by confusion, suspicion and betrayal: our hero Riccardo is passionately and disastrously in love with his best friend Renato’s wife, Amelia, and although they never actually transgress their positions (as best friend and wife) in any meaningful way, the opera ends violently with Riccardo dead, Renato aghast and Amelia’s marriage almost certainly destroyed. Sung in beautifully clear English, Timothy Nelson’s small-scale production for Iford pulls the audience right inside Verdi’s vortex of emotions which keeps Ballo so gripping from beginning to end.

Brian Arreola (Riccardo) © Rob Coles | Iford Arts
Brian Arreola (Riccardo)
© Rob Coles | Iford Arts

Both director and designer, Nelson sets Ballo in England in what feels like the date Iford’s own cloister was constructed, 1914. Cricket whites, modest floral dresses, evening dress and cigarettes give a sense of the loucheness, yet residual innocence, of the very early 1920s, while poppies and military uniforms speak of darker human experience. A clean and minimal set (there’s never room for much more in Iford’s jewel-like interior) allows strong visual effects to be created simply: the graveyard scene, in particular, is gothically beautiful, with swirling mist, eerie shadows and a weeping stone angel at its heart. Throughout, Nelson uses balloons as props and scenery, allowing for a truly heart-attack-inducing gunshot in the finale, as well as loud bangs at other times (occasionally unscripted). At first, I confess, I wasn’t certain about all those balloons, but this really is a production which, if you give it time, just gets cleverer and cleverer.

The same fascinating progression is to be found in the truly innovative lighting design from Charlie Lucas, who has built a platform over Iford’s flagstones, enabling him to light scenes (like Ulrica’s lair) exotically from beneath, as well as above. This is particularly effective for Ballo’s supernatural moments, so important to the plot and yet so easily spoilt: here, everything feels satisfyingly spooky. The orchestra also hits the mark: Oliver Gooch, conducting the CHROMA ensemble, creates a full, warm and vibrant sound, moving elegantly from the black to the sparkling moments of Verdi’s constantly contrasting score.  

Brian Arreola is a delightful Riccardo, reminding us that this really is one of the most loveable of all Verdi’s heroes, giving him charisma, confidence and a sense of infectious chimerical joy, as well as strong and lyrical singing. Arreola’s Riccardo is a definitely man who lights up every room and fires every heart, reminding us this character began life as a king (before the censors forced Verdi to rename him); he contrasts brilliantly with Eddie Wade’s elder statesman Renato, the seasoned campaigner trying vainly to rein in the young leader with the benefit of his wisdom. Wade’s portrayal of an honourable man driven to dishonourable actions through anger is both compelling and saddening: both Renato’s rage, and his final remorse, is terrible to behold.

Catrin Aur (Amelia) © Rob Coles | Iford Arts
Catrin Aur (Amelia)
© Rob Coles | Iford Arts

Catrin Aur’s Amelia is finely sung, and nicely balanced between palpable desire (for Riccardo) and desperation to cling onto her own honour and keep her marriage unstained. We feel she is destroyed internally by her eventual admission of love for Riccardo, when Verdi’s music becomes almost deliriously beautiful for a few minutes, as the depth of their impossible passion is revealed, until Amelia begs Riccardo to “defend me from my heart”. Her final appeals to Renato (before he relents, and decides not to kill her) are primally charged, Aur skilfully using the musical shape of her aria to lead her acting.

Nina Lejderman’s Oscar is not a naughty pageboy (as the role is generally played), but Riccardo’s fretful lovelorn secretary, full of anxious intensity and hopeless longing. While I wouldn’t want to see every Oscar played this way, it is interesting as a counterpoint to the more traditional Oscar (as a devil-may-care Cherubino type), not least by underlining the seductive qualities of Riccardo: a man with whom almost everyone on stage (bar his enemies) is in love. Lejderman sings fluidly, particularly delightful when drunk at the final party, swigging from a hip flask for her famous aria.

Marianne Vidal gives the witch Ulrica terrific physicality, often hunched over menacingly, or rocking gently in a corner: this is an Ulrica at the mercy, not in control, of her gifts. Vidal’s rich voice thrills us in Ulrica’s first terrifying aria, while her stagecraft hovers close to comedy, almost climbing onto her clients as she gets far too up close and personal for anyone’s liking. Occasionally, I felt Vidal took this a little too far: sometimes the hunching and other physical tricks obscured her words. Nevertheless, it’s a dynamic portrayal of a vividly mad woman. Szymon Wach and Jevan McAuley lope and smirk as the conspirators Tom and Samuel.

If you enjoyed Katharina Thoma's beautiful 2014-15 production for the Royal Opera, with its dancing human statues – Nelson also uses these at Iford, though fitting the scale, it’s one solitary soldier – Nelson makes a fascinating comparison, just showing that Verdi’s fierce grip on character and plot can shine equally brightly on a smaller stage.