The final scene in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera invites stage directors to dazzle their audiences with a sumptuous masked ball. The public at this new production was duly dazzled, in the best of taste, and not just by the scintillating golds and pinks of the ball gowns. The opera’s original libretto was inspired by the real-life assassination of Gustav III of Sweden in 1792, but Verdi was constrained by the censors to steer clear of regicide. For the world premiere in 1859 he relocated the action to Boston. The production team at the Hungarian State Opera has opted for the European context, recreating the court of an 18th-century enlightened despot in a glittering ballet of changing colour palettes. Musically, things were less scintillating. Michelangelo Mazza conducted the house orchestra with rhythmic energy but little dynamic refinement and the singing was variable. However, the performance’s biggest shortcoming was the lack of rapport between the lead singers as actors.

Eszter Sümegi (Amelia), Attila Fekete (Gustavo) and Alexandru Agache (Renato)
© Valter Berecz

Director Fabio Ceresa gives an interesting slant to the love triangle. Instead of the king’s secretary, Renato is his portrait painter. His admiration for his patron turns into murderous fury when he discovers that Gustavo is having a platonic affair with his wife Amelia. Gustavo, usually a reckless, joke-loving monarch, is an insomniac plagued by worries, which include his dangerous enemies. He is haunted by two masked, winged figures – one black, one white. They personify the twins Hypnos and Thanatos – Sleep, which eludes him, and Death, which ultimately grants him the rest he seeks. Although their meaning would probably not be obvious without reading the programme notes, these splendid apparitions tie into the interplay of darkness and light, portent and levity, that permeates the score. Ceresa also plausibly alters the fortune-teller Ulrica’s cure for Amelia’s infatuation with Gustavo. The obscure herb Amelia is supposed to collect at midnight is opium. Renato catches his wife with her lover in a lavish, amber-draped opium den, teeming with addicts and attendants in rippling pastels. What marvellous work by set designer Tiziano Santi and costume designer Giuseppe Palella!

Bernadett Fodor (Ulrica), Attila Fekete (Gustavo) and Zita Szemere (Oscar)
© Valter Berecz

Not all of the singers being credible actors, some of Ceresa’s ideas could not be fully realised. The emotions between the three protagonists failed to ignite. A restless, ardent Gustavo, tenor Attila Fekete was the only one to keep his passions on a constant boil. His Amelia, Eszter Sümegi, fluctuated from warm to cool, with long stretches of tepid in between. Lying down in an opium haze suited her cautious movements and her torment during the love duet was convincing. However, having to recline on a sofa during her beautifully controlled “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” resulted in some awkward squirming. As Renato, baritone Alexandru Agache moved awkwardly. After some obligatory portrait-smashing, he summoned genuine, thundering rage for his big aria, “Eri tu”, but threw away too many of his other lines for his character to come alive. Non-acting did the death scene in. While Gustavo bled out, Renato hung his head in moderate dismay, as if he’d just mislaid his cobalt blue instead of shooting a reigning monarch. Sümegi just stared on, looking gorgeously aristocratic. Ceresa also failed here by not having the chorus, who sang superbly, react to the murder more believably as individuals.

Attila Fekete (Gustavo) and chorus
© Valter Berecz

The orchestra responded to Mazza’s bravado with confidence, though not always with clean intonation. Mazza can whip up a tremendous Verdi ensemble, but the climactic moments would have had more effect if he’d stinted on the unrelenting volume. Fekete also favoured singing at full volume, and his few attempts at soft singing were not pretty. But he came through with the top notes and had an Italianate catch in the voice that is welcome in this repertoire. Agache, wielding a rather gruff, large baritone was more successful as raging Renato than as rational Renato, not least because his voice was better supported after his first aria. Sümegi produced many lovely phrases, and had accurate, piercing high notes up to high C. A dose of temperament could have compensated for the voice not opening up completely on soaring lines, and a middle register lacking the ideal fullness for the role. Instead, her Amelia remained curiously detached. Bernadett Fodor sang a serviceable Ulrica with good top notes, but her contralto register was not potent enough for conjuring up the devil. Totally delightful was the Oscar of Zita Szemere, whose malleable, evenly produced soprano has a sunny timbre to match her charming presence. Máté Fülepsang sang the sailor Cristiano with plenty of vocal muscle and Sándor Egri was a gravelly judge and servant. Basses Krisztián Cser and Ferenc Cserhalmi made a pair of highly effective conspirators. Cser impressed with his smooth emission and rotund tone. The opening night cast alternates with a second cast in this truly stunning production.