In this revival of David Pountney’s production, the gifted Georgian tenor Otar Jorjikia took over the lead role of Gustavo, King of Sweden, for the ill Marcelo Álvarez. Jorjikia, a member of Zurich’s International Opera Studio (IOS), has a particularly dramatic and many-hued voice which showed itself entirely secure, despite the same day’s appointment to the lead role. While playing a more modest monarch than some, his humanity made him infinitely likeable. Gone was any regal trumpery; here, Gustavo was just a man overcome by passionate love.

The king’s page Oscar is an upbeat, but challenging soprano role, which − again with a day’s notice − the superb Ilse Eerens stepped in to sing for Sen Guo from one side of the stage, while Guo herself mimed the character. Eerens sang with terrific conviction and tireless energy, and her clear, silvery voice made me hope to hear her more often.

Loosely based on the historical assassination of Swedish King Gustav III at a masked ball, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera premièred in 1859. The opera plays on the whole gamut of emotions: the power of love, the acid of jealousy, the fear of loneliness, the value of strong morality and that certain “magic” that can override any of them. Collectively, these themes have great theatrical potential; add Verdi’s sublime music, played as lyrically as the Philharmonia Zürich can do under Fabio Luisi’s baton − along with the solid body of the fine house choir − and you have a winning combination for what Gabriele d’Annunzio once cited as “the most operatic of operas”. 

The love story between Gustavo and Amelia, his best friend’s wife, unfolds against the background of subversion and plotting. It ends when the King, just as he renounces his forbidden love, is killed by Renato, Amelia’s jealous husband. For the opera’s first performances, and in light of its royal assassination, Verdi had had to stage his politically “hot” opera in Colonial Boston to meet the Italian censors’ demands. More recently, though, and in accord with the composer’s intention, the setting has moved back to Sweden, as in this production.

In her Zurich debut as Amelia, Sondra Radvanovsky gave a truly illuminated performance. With her “Give me strength,” in Act 1, she appeals to the Lord, and it was certainly granted, for from then on, her voice was projected as powerfully as any I’ve heard in this house. In Act 2, at the burial ground in search of the potent herb that should defeat her affections for the King, she stands with the horror of some twenty “corpses” hanging at various heights behind her, yet offers one of the most tender and heart-wrenching of arias, singing “If that’s my destiny, my duty, then so be it.” When the King appears, however, and she confesses to returning his love, the hanging corpses’ faces and hands turn a phosphorescent white to make a starry night behind them.

As the tortured Renato, baritone George Petean gave a strong and fully credible performance, and in his much-awaited tragic aria, “Eri tu”, he beautifully phrased the content to pull even the hardest of heartstrings. By the same token, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’ Ulrica was a perfect mix of ominous and humorous – another thread that Verdi highlighted throughout. The shining light of the Zurich production was, however, spared none of the dark details that the story deserved. The heavily moulded drape that Raimund Bauer designed to coddle the entire stage was used as a metaphor, both for the opera’s bleak outcome and as a startling contrast to the innocence of Gustavo and Amelia’s unconsummated love. The huge hand that drops from the heights to encourage Oscar to cheer up has proportions like the justice of Constantine, and the broken-up flats set among the fine choir on the revolving stage clearly indicate the unstoppable unravelling of events. Commendably, nothing is introduced into the stage design for the sake of the gag alone, just as Jürgen Hoffmann’s lighting strictly serves the drama rather than ever tout itself.

The costuming (Marie-Jeanne Lecca) was as well chosen. The military costumes, with their trefoil hats and breeches, were a throwback to colourful formality, whereas the vain and eccentric sorceress Ulrica was wrapped in a glitzy 1920s flapper’s frock, as well as, briefly, the Swedish flag. That disconnect in stuffs was purposeful, though: each costume typified the wearer’s perception of his or her role.

In sum, and despite unexpected principal cast changes, the revival of Verdi’s Ballo featured excellent voices, original and purposeful staging and a broad swathe of vibrant and touching tableaux, making for three hours of seamless pleasure.