Ballo at The King’s Head

Our second Verdi opera this week. This was Verdi with a gigantic twist that still conveyed the musical emotions in Verdi’s score. The cast of six from OperaUpClose performed in the tiny back-of-the-pub King’s Head Theatre (Islington, London) with a piano accompaniment. If I was awarding bouquets for the evening the first would go to the pianist  (not even named in the programme), who kept the score rolling with tremendous flair and warmth. I did not miss the orchestra and there were many times when the piano seemed the perfect accompaniment.

The twist: For those who think of Ballo in Maschera as set in the 18th Century either in the Swedish court or alternatively in colonial Boston (America), it comes as a shock to find that ‘Ballo’ is a modern-day Ikea-style store with Riccardo as manager and Amelia as a checkout operator. The new libretto is hilarious in the first act, yet still within the original story line (a successful and popular – in his own eyes – Riccardo, with a camp sycophantic PA, Oscar, a dour jobs-worth assistant Renato and a disgruntled store cleaner, Tom).

Ulrica, when she appears, is the Customer Complaints Manager making the best of a poorly paid job, well below her degree-level capacity, by doing fortune-telling on the side. Those of us who knew the opera well were laughing at the cleverness of the plot adaptation, Amy and others, new to the opera, were laughing because they recognised the bind she was describing. Amy felt the opera dealt with real modern issues.

Act 2 had Amelia waiting in the freezing car park of the Ballo store to buy drugs. Her aria about her life, her dilemma and her hopelessness was genuinely moving. Riccardo turned up, now serious and confused, to declare his (rather abbreviated) passion. Renato appeared to save Riccardo from Tom, who is on his way to kill him. Tom (who deals drugs to boost his income) appears and cruelly taunts Renato for trysting with his own wife in a car park. The plot events from this point and through Act 3 are close to the original and achieve that satisfying flip of turning comedy into tragedy.

I haven’t mentioned the singing. In a venue this small, the operatic voice is twice as exciting, but also very in-your-face. It is also, with only a piano to back it up, very exposed. The evening we attended (Thursday), the voices that were most positively beautiful and assured were Tom and Ulrica (bass and mezzo). I am not a musician and it may be that the lower voices fare best in such circumstances. The others varied with great moments and the odd squeak. It was fun to have a male soprano in the trouser role and his acting was sheer delight as he echoed every movement Riccardo made and reacted brilliantly to both events and characters. All the acting was good and this enormously enhanced the singing and brought great intensity in the ensemble sections.

I really love to hear the voices only an arm’s length away and felt privileged that these singers should perform for us (at minimal pay) in this pocket-sized venue. Overall verdict from both old timers and new comers – the adaptation really worked, the music that mattered was there, a great experience, fun, moving and something to repeat.

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