In his quest to bring a dash of Euro-cool to Wales, David Pountney has converted Verdi’s tuneful melodrama into something indigestibly rich and strange. The veteran director sets so many hares running through Un ballo in maschera that even seasoned observers will struggle to catch them all, leaving a riddle wrapped in a history inside an opera that’s been slathered in naff and shorn of narrative coherence.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo), Roland Wood (Renato) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia) © Bill Cooper
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo), Roland Wood (Renato) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia)
© Bill Cooper

To be fair to Pountney, the opera’s text is simplistic and the score, for such a dark tragedy, is impossibly rollicking. Like most directors, he had to do something to adjust its tone for a modern audience; but his solutions tend to the wayward. Raimund Bauer’s sets from La forza del destino have been cunningly disguised to refresh the aesthetic this time round and are well served by some superbly atmospheric lighting by Fabrice Kebour, but in such a romantic opera the need to bring a squad of headset-wearing stagehands into view every time there’s a scene to shift is something of a passion killer.

The original of Ballo already exists in two versions because, for reasons of political sensitivity in Italy, Verdi was obliged to remove his finished opera away from the Sweden of King Gustavus III and drop it instead in Boston, Massachusetts, away from any whiff of regnal parallels. Yet although Welsh National Opera gives us Ballo II, the American cut, Pountney nevertheless fills the stage with Swedish flags during a climactic scene. Confused? You are not alone.

Sara Fulgoni (Ulrica) and WNO Chorus © Bill Cooper
Sara Fulgoni (Ulrica) and WNO Chorus
© Bill Cooper

Landed with a show that hasn’t been conceived for newcomers, WNO at least gets the music right. Straightforward brilliance is the order of the day, and plenty of it. The company’s Conductor Laureate, Carlo Rizzi, opted for fast tempi that occasionally left his singers gulping for breath on opening night, but his overarching interpretation was always convincing and the orchestra luxuriated in its task – as did the heroic WNO Chorus, a body that gets plenty of stage time in this middle-period Verdi spectacular and sings lustily even when choreographer Michael Spenceley apparently plunders a Gilbert and Sullivan dance guide to keep them busy.

Un ballo in maschera is the opera in which a tenor learns from a gypsy soothsayer that the next man whose hand he shakes will kill him. In the event this turns out to be his friend, a baritone. Being Verdi, there’s a soprano in the mix (the baritone’s wife but the tenor’s chaste beloved) and so things unravel in predictable Italianate fashion until a fatal confrontation at the eponymous masked ball.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia) © Bill Cooper
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Riccardo) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Amelia)
© Bill Cooper

WNO’s tenor and soprano for Ballo, as they were for Forza in 2018 (and, who knows, may well be next year when Pountney completes his Verdi triptych with Les Vêpres siciliennes) are Gwyn Hughes Jones and Mary Elizabeth Williams. They make a fine pairing. Jones, whose voice seems to gain new layers of beauty and power every time I hear him, has never sounded more resplendent than here as the Governor, Riccardo, while Williams overcame some early tonal unevenness to deliver Amelia’s suffering magnificently throughout the final act. Their two voices were so well matched that the jealous Renato would have been a distraction were he not performed with the distinction Roland Wood brought to the role. Wood’s second crack at a character he first played for Grange Park Opera last year was perhaps a little low on light and shade, but what he lacked in dynamic colouring he more than made up for in vocal opulence. He is another singer whose timbre gets better and better.

Julie Martin du Theil (Oscar) © Bill Cooper
Julie Martin du Theil (Oscar)
© Bill Cooper

The joker in the Ballo pack is the pageboy Oscar, a trouser role that’s a ready-made scene-stealer for a canny young singer. Pountney and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca have imagined this lad as a bit of a dude, all leathers and black accoutrements, and the Swiss soprano Julie Martin du Theil rocked her persona with an irresistible swagger and a sardonic delivery. There was fine work, too, from Sara Fulgoni as the gypsy Ulrica, always around to lend her predictions a nudge in the right direction, and from the pairing of Jihoon Kim and Tristan Hambleton as the would-be assassins Samuel and Tom who, here, sit perched inexplicably atop umpires’ chairs. Well, why not.

***11