Classical review: Verdi’s Ballo, King’s Head Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

The news that OperaUpClose were planning to stage Verdi’s A Masked Ball in an IKEA store did not sound promising, as we’d been there before. In 2009 Flatpack Opera made Wembley IKEA the venue and subject of a work whose audience was joined by bemused shoppers, not all of whom were keen to be plunged into an art event which began in the bedsit department and ended in kitchens. At least OperaUpClose were doing it in a kosher theatre.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production opens with a cartoon digest of the original plot which encourages the thought that this far-fetched tragedy – which had itself been repeatedly mashed up in Verdi’s attempts to beat the censors – might not be such a bad candidate for yet another mash-up. And since Oscar - governor Riccardo’s right-hand man, usually sung as a female trouser-role - was historically sexually ambiguous, it makes sense for this new Oscar to be a male soprano.

As incarnated by Martin Milnes, this store manager’s PA is an electrifying presence even before he’s started to sing, but when he does that one can hardly believe a male actor could sing so high and loud with such apparent ease. The epitome of high-octane camp, Milnes plays irresistibly off Edward Hughes’s portly Riccardo and Olivia Barry’s thunderous Ulrica, whose original role as a baleful fortune-teller is here replaced by a contemporary one as a disgruntled customer complaints advisor who makes extra pennies reading people’s stars. With Verdi’s tragic Amelia (Becca Marriott) as a checkout girl, Renato (Christopher Jacklin) as a put-upon assistant store manager, and the revolutionary Tom (Dickon Gough) as a cleaner with a talent for provoking mayhem, the plot is convincingly sprung for 2013.

And 2013 is where the libretto – initiated by Spreadbury-Maher but subsequently worked on by the whole cast – most emphatically dwells, with its one-liners taking in everything from office mores to email hacking to the latest bank collapse. Like all good send-ups, this one works because it’s done with real love for the original. Intelligent direction plus Nick Fletcher’s heroic piano accompaniment allows this talented young cast to tread the comic tightrope between pathos and bathos for long stretches of time: only in Act 3, where the music’s high tragedy allows no ironic undercurrent, is the spell weakened as these young voices – with the exception of the excellent Olivia Barry and Dickon Gough – unsurprisingly fail to measure up to Verdi’s vertiginous demands.