Opera review: Un ballo in maschera

A classic is back on the National Theatre stage in a clean and accessible production

A staple of many opera repertoires, Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) takes its inspiration from the assassination of Sweden's King Gustav IV in 1792, and turns it into a love triangle.

It's last production at the National Theatre in Prague was in 1968, in translation. It ran until 1974. The State Opera had a more recent production, with the last one running 2001–05.

The new production at the National Theatre in Prague updates the action to the time the opera was written, setting much of the action in what looks like a large marble and brass hotel lobby. The set and most of the costumes are black and white, with details in red popping up now and again. Some changes to the background and the ceiling hangings are used to change the set without stopping the action. One of the key characters, a fortuneteller named Ulrica, is all in black with a top hat and black angel's wings.

The lead characters are portrayed by Peter Berger and Michal Lehotský (Gustav III), Anda-Louise Bogza, Veronika Dzhioeva and Maria Kobielska (Amelia), and Svatopluk Sem and Michele Kalmandy (Renato). The coloratura part of Oscar is performed by Marie Fajtová and Yukiko Kinjo, the role of Ulrica the fortune-teller by Veronika Hajnová and Eliška Weissová.

Director Dominik Beneš, who previously directed Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the National Theatre, keeps the staging relatively simple and doesn't overdo the high-concept aspects. The production seems to be pitched at a wide audience that wants to enjoy the music and a bit a show, and not be confronted with ponderous staging choices. There are a few details to add some interest though, such as a moth logo that keeps popping up, and the subtle use of the limited color range

The stage is fairly barren of props, mostly due to acts with a large chorus both at the beginning and the end. Some set décor is rolled in and out quickly for some scenes. The production avoids projections, laser effects and other touches that while popular have become a bit overused and distracting if they don't fit the subject.

Beneš takes the play as a wide metaphor. “The opera’s title itself evokes in me buoyant merry-making and revelry. Yet pretense and hypocrisy lead to a spine-chilling drama,” he said in a press release. “Harboring mystery and enhancing imagination, the story actually represents a masked ball, whereby for various reasons the society and the individual characters act insincerely, feigning something, wearing masks,” he added.

Set and costume designer Marek Cpin explained his reason for updating the opera. “The libretto is based on a real historical event, the assassination of Gustav III, King of Sweden, in 1792. But when creating the sets and costumes, I was more inspired by the epoch in which Verdi composed the opera, that is, the second half of the 19th century, a time abounding in elegance, theatricality, with the ladies having been quite feminine. That period does not come across as archaic as the Rococo era,” he said. “We did not want to update the opera at any cost; our aim was to present a timeless, modern spectacle. The major and decisive element is the masked ball itself, the opera’s finale, yet each of the lead characters now and then sports a mask throughout the story.”

The music director of the National Theatre Opera, Jaroslav Kyzlink, also conducts this opera. “The most recent National Theatre production of the opera Un Ballo in maschera was staged five decades ago. Yet the long break is just one of the reasons we have decided to include the piece in our program plan. The other reasons are Verdi’s renown, the opera’s high quality and the splendid opportunities it affords the singers; the expected popularity on the part of the audience, as well as a certain context, or the dramaturgic line pursued by the National Theatre Opera, with its objective being not only to nurture the Czech and Slavonic musical legacy, but also to build up a company capable of performing the entire spectrum of the opera repertoire,” he said.

The production achieves its goals of presenting the work as a timeless piece, and of creating an air of mystery. The music is not Verdi's most memorable, but there are several standout pieces both for individual singers and the chorus as a whole.

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