Un Ballo In Maschera, Royal Opera House, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Flaws in the execution
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The Independent Culture

The title page of the programme was discreetly etched with balloons. On the inside pages, greetings from the great and the good of classical music displayed an almost competitive enthusiasm. Sir Charles Mackerras - the musicians' musician - is 80, and he chose to spend the evening of the big day in his rightful place, on the podium of the Royal Opera House, conducting Verdi's Un ballo in maschera with an urgency that had nothing to do with the vanishing years and everything to do with dramatic imperative.

It is easy to recognise and hard to explain what makes Mackerras such a great stylist. But it has to do with a scholar's instinct and understanding allied to real practical flair. That and his nose for pace, accent, colour and atmosphere bring the music off the page with tangy immediacy. This Ballo may on occasion have pressed the singers, but it gave them the context in which to seize their opportunities. Mackerras certainly seized his. At the close of the first scene, he sent Riccardo and his followers sprinting off in a riot of party-popping effervescence to meet with the notorious fortune-teller Ulrica. And because Verdi knew his business, we were then plunged, by way of thunderously fatalistic chords, into the prelude to scene two, where the hollowest of clarinets foreshadowed Ulrica's terrible predictions of Riccardo's murder.

Mackerras could hardly have made more of the contrast, but a pointless curtain at this point robbed us of the shocking juxtaposition. That was the first but not the last theatrical miscalculation of a director - Mario Martone - better known for his work in film. I didn't much like this production when it first appeared in April, but less than a year on it struck me as even more of a waste of space - and time. Two intervals in Ballo is at best an indulgence. If Martone had any instinct for the pacing of Verdi's drama, he would have instructed his set designer (Sergio Tramonti) to forgo the rubble-strewn realism of Act II's "place of death" and found a way of getting us into Act III without the 40-minute clean-up operation. By then you're not only wondering why Renato is so angry with his wife, but could also be forgiven for having forgotten which opera they're in.

But Martone's production doesn't do joined-up thinking. Unlike Mackerras, he has no sense of style, and the Boston relocation (an act of desperation on the part of Verdi's librettist in 1858 when the censors stepped in) is a red herring. Characterisation is conspicuous by its absence. Poor Richard Margison (Riccardo) is given no authority. He's like a charisma bypass through the heart of the piece. It's a decent enough voice - impressive girth and burnished tone - but the Italian is not good and the delivery unstylish. And nowhere is his flamboyance even hinted at. There must at least be a frisson of playfulness between him and his page Oscar (the excellent Patrizia Biccire).

And what had Ulrica come as? Stephanie Blythe's singing was indomitable, her chest tones menacingly grainy and incisive. But with her gnarled walking-stick and ludicrously hunched gait, she was the ghost of opera past, sadly (and scarily) not forgotten.

None of us will forget Nina Stemme's radiant Glyndebourne Isolde. But Verdi's arching phrases are a long way from Wagner's, and for all the excitement of her plangent sound, the reach of those long lines eluded her, particularly where Verdi asks his soprano to take notes from thin air and entice us with them above the stave.

After a tepid start, Dmitri Hvorstovsky (Renato) did just that with his passionate Act III aria. Stylistically, he has the true measure of the sustained Verdi legato - a man after Mackerras's own heart.

Birthday or not, it was still Sir Charles's night. May there be many more.

In rep to 16 December (020-7304 4000)

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