The protagonists in Verdi's Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) have different names depending on the version used. In the original Swedish setting they are King Gustavo and Count Anckarström; but when, for reasons of political expediency, the opera was relocated to a more humble governorship in the USA, they become Riccardo and Renato.
In Tim Albery's unspecific modern-dress account for Opera North they could be called Dastardly and Muttley for all it matters. We might be anywhere, anywhen.
This tuneful opera has been unlucky on the UK stage of late, not least in a Royal Opera horrorshow three years back, and it's easy to see why. Relationships in Antonio Somma's libretto are unconvincingly sketched, the narrative is misogynistic and the music weaves its tragic tale with improbable dollops of jollity. And since Verdi's score is way too colourful for his dark material, what's a director to do? Mute it, apparently, into a visual world of greys and reds. This is the Swedish version of Ballo so we are among royalty, though you wouldn't know it from designer Hannah Clark's high-walled sets populated by men in mafioso-style double-breasted suits or else trussed up as tinpot generals.
Opera North's casting is sadly uneven. Tenor Rafael Rojas was so powerful in Andrea Chenier and Turandot for the company, but here he sounded out of sorts as Gustavo, at least in a tired middle register, although most of his high-lying money notes were their burnished selves. Neither did Philip Rhodes light many fireworks as the king's friend-turned-nemesis Anckarström. In Verdi's cruelly exposed baritone writing his performance was slow-burn at best.
'A cause for celebration'
Three good female performances tipped the opera's balance towards the distaff. Hungarian soprano Adrienn Miksch, a bright-voice singer with a pronounced but attractive vibrato, characterised Amelia (Lady Anckarström and Gustavo's almost-lover) as vulnerable yet dignified, which seemed entirely right. Her moral innocence only served to diminish her mistrustful husband.
Patricia Bardon held effortless sway in her one appearance as Ulrica, the fortune teller. Kitted out - puzzlingly - like a heroine of the Résistance, she oozed mezzo cool in doling out unpalatable truths to the doomed king.
However, it was Tereza Gevorgyan who dominated the evening as the king's all-seeing secretary Oscar, a trouser role and the only character given a measure of physical freedom in Albery's curiously stolid staging. The Armenian soprano's attractive timbre contrasted happily with that of Miksch in their shared scenes and her agility, both physical and vocal, aerated the prevailing stuffiness. She lifted the whole opera with a brilliantly sustained presence that was ambiguous on every level. Only when her (male) character was put into (feminine) drag for the titular main event did the mask fall. This was a pointless in-joke on travesti given that Mozart got there first and did it best with Cherubino.
Barring a couple of dubious comprimario contributions, everything else was fine. The chorus had been expertly prepared by Oliver Rundell, and in the pit Richard Farnes ensured that the return of the Opera North prodigal was a cause for celebration. Since his 2016 exploits with Wagner's Ring Farnes has been pickled in Verdi, what with Il trovatore at the ROH and La traviata at Glyndebourne, and he knows his way round the Italian style like few British baton-jockeys. It was great to have him back in Leeds, and on such sizzling form. Bring the fatted calf.
Un ballo in maschera runs in repertory (along with revivals of Madama Butterfly and Don Giovanni) in Leeds until 2 March, then tours to Salford, Nottingham and Newcastle until 24 March.