Grange Park Opera, having moved from its original Hampshire base last year, has settled in nicely at West Horsley Place, Bamber Gascoigne’s Surrey pad. After two years’ work, the purpose-built Theatre in the Woods looks almost finished, if one ignores the exposed breeze blocks and steel girders of its backstage area, and is now joined by an impressive Lavatorium Rotundum. Moreover, from this season the orchestra of English National Opera, no less, has become its pit band. The pattern of staging a classic musical and a pair of Romantic operas seems well-established: this year, Oklahoma! is accompanied by Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Elisabetta Fiorillo (Ulrica) © Robert Workman
Elisabetta Fiorillo (Ulrica)
© Robert Workman

For Ballo, Grange Park has gone against modern trends and opted for the Boston setting, forced upon the composer when the Italian censors took exception to his intended depiction of regicide in 18th-century Sweden. Jamie Vartan’s single set depicts a colonial-style capitol interior, though it necessitates trucking on subsidiary scenery for Ulrica’s coven and Renato’s office – and the gloomy, sinister gallows setting for Act 2 has to be achieved by lighting alone, which makes it feel a little homespun. Stephen Medcalf’s stage direction is traditional and largely faithful to the libretto, with Nicky Shaw’s costuming setting the story in the mid-19th century. Medcalf is an experienced director and his positioning of the main characters always seems apt, but his marshalling of the chorus is strangely stilted and subject to a number of non-realist ticks: the entire group facing away from the audience in the final ensemble of Ulrica’s scene and turning as one to interject, for instance; and freezing mid-pose when the focus is elsewhere – this is at its most tiresome in the final ball scene with the main characters’ interruptions of the dancing signposted with changes in the lighting as well.

Claire Rutter (Amelia) and Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo) © Robert Workman
Claire Rutter (Amelia) and Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo)
© Robert Workman

Thankfully, the chorus itself – an ensemble composed largely of current vocal students and recent graduates in the Glyndebourne tradition – sang with exceptional focus and power on this opening night. The solo cast was perhaps less uniformly impressive, though at their individual best it was very good indeed. Vincenzo Costanzo’s Boston governor Riccardo was the relative weak point: his singing sometimes lacked subtlety and the discipline to negotiate Verdi’s precise rhythmic colouring of the vocal line with accuracy. Claire Rutter’s Amelia, though, was superb, with attractive steeliness to her voice that is the hallmark of the true dramatic Verdian soprano. Roland Wood’s Renato was impressive, too, demonstrating ample vocal reserves and a stage presence that chillingly charted his character’s descent from loyal confidant to fearsome avenger.

Grange Park Opera Chorus © Robert Workman
Grange Park Opera Chorus
© Robert Workman

Tereza Gevorgyan’s Oscar, larking around in cowboy get-up and behaving like Cherubino’s twin brother as the governor’s page, was a delight, her singing both agile and full of charm. Elisabetta Fiorillo, as the fortune-teller Ulrica, had a rich, imposing sonority to the bottom of her voice, but sounded uncomfortably vibrato-laden above, to the extent that it was often difficult to hear the notes themselves. Matthew Buswell and Matthew Stiff acquitted themselves with distinction as the assassins Sam and Tom.

Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo) © Robert Workman
Vincenzo Costanzo (Riccardo)
© Robert Workman

Gianluca Marcianò, who has virtually become Grange Park’s house conductor in the Italian repertoire, was able to put his trust in the ENO Orchestra’s inbuilt experience in accompanying singers, allowing them the space to shine. The recessed pit helpfully tamed some of the brashness of Verdi’s orchestration, with its incessant piccolo (and I write as a one-time piccolo player) and brassy interjections, and Marcianò not only drew out the score’s sonic subtleties but also paced its almost Shakespearean interplay of light and dark with admirable expertise.

***11