Verdi’s A Masked Ball is a blend of splendid elements. It has romance: Riccardo, the Governor of Boston, and Amelia are in the toils of an irresistible attraction. It has drama: Amelia is married to the Governor’s best friend and political advisor, Renato. It has intrigue: the Governor’s political opponents, led by Samuel and Tom, are planning to assassinate Riccardo, and Renato is his most loyal defender. The first act writhes with dramatic irony because Renato does not understand that the man he is loyal to is his betrayer. In the third act, which is a masked ball, all the masks are peeled away, and a tragic truth is revealed.

Elena Manistina as Ulrica and Dimitri Pittas as Riccardo © Michael Cooper
Elena Manistina as Ulrica and Dimitri Pittas as Riccardo
© Michael Cooper
The plot is spiced with racism and the supernatural. When a magistrate urges the Governor to sign a warrant to deport an African-American woman, Ulrica, for telling fortunes, Riccardo and Amelia decide separately to consult her that night. Riccardo’s fortune is to die by the hand of the first person who shakes his hand; when that person turns out to be his friend Renato who has come to shield him from an imminent threat to his life, Riccardo decides Ulrica is a fraud and signs the warrant. Amelia is told she must pick at midnight an herb that can cure her passion for Riccardo, but when she goes to the garden she finds Riccardo waiting for her, and they renew their attachment.

The Canadian Opera Company’s update of the setting to the 1960s, Kennedy-era Boston, while problematic, is actually based on Verdi’s experience of staging his first production a hundred years earlier. The core story of the libretto is based on the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III at a masked ball in 1792. Verdi’s problems with censors around the assassination of a noble forced him out of a European setting to the safety of colonial Boston in the 1690s, where the witchcraft element would also be at home. And since the witch was African, the directorial team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito were inspired to blend Verdi with the 1960s, when segregation was being called into question by a President with an eye for the ladies and a connection with “the youth culture” symbolized in the opera by Oscar, the Governor’s aide in charge of the ball.

Isla Parekh, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Evan Boyer and Roland Wood © Michael Cooper
Isla Parekh, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Evan Boyer and Roland Wood
© Michael Cooper
The opera is opened by Oscar, a pants role roguishly played by the soprano Simone Osborne in black leather tights and a top that emphasizes her buxom build, lounging and cavorting solo around the set of the Arvedson Palace Hotel which is furnished in red and white tables and chairs, movable rows of plush leather theatre seats, and glittering mirrored columns. It combines the contemporary casual look of an Ikea walk-through display room and a harbourfront condominium party room. It will serve as committee breakfast room, Ulrica's devil-worshipping den, her herb garden where the lovers will tryst, and where the assassination attempt will take place, where Renato will discover his wife’s romance with Riccardo and will join the conspiracy to kill him, and as the ballroom where the deed will be done. The multipurpose functionality of Barbara Ehnes’ set becomes the monotone that flattens and dampens the opera’s dramatic potential. Anja Rabes’ casual costumes, mixing formal dress with pyjamas and bathrobes you see in Sears, contribute to the farcical elements the directors built into the antics of Oscar and the chorus of politicians. Perhaps the worst decision the directors made was to have Riccardo, on getting Amelia to admit she loves him, slide into a slump on the couch and present his crotch to the audience as he luxuriates in the knowledge that he is loved.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia © Michael Cooper
Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia
© Michael Cooper
While the setting and direction neutralize the impact of the drama, Verdi’s score, with the COC orchestra under the baton of Stephen Lord, flows right into the heart. Basses Evan Boyer and Giovanni Parodi act convincingly as the assassins and their duets are consistently excellent. Elena Manistina is sometimes obliged to play the sleepwalker, but she occupy the mezzo tessitura with great authority and dignity. Roland Wood as Renato gives the best male performance: his full-bodied baritone is sonorous and his stage presence is authentic. As Riccardo, Dimitri Pittas delivers in a tenor that is radiant and clear as a bell, but because his eyes lock his face into a constant faraway expression, his performance is monochromatic. Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia is irresistible. Her “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” was the most authentic moment in the opera: it seemed like she actually melted her husband’s murderous rage. Her creamy soprano ached with vulnerability, shaping gorgeous tones through a shimmering range of emotions with ease and power. Her presence floods the ending in forgiveness.

A Masked Ball continues till 22 February.