OPERA Un Ballo in Maschera Holland Park, London

An al fresco masked ball with prizewinning singers. By Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture
The Holland Park American Express Prize is given, not for singing a selection of arias and lieder, but for a performance in a complete opera. Many might hope that it would promote some unseemingly upstaging; but it's more of a Man/Woman of the Match Award, a tribute to selfless endeavour on behalf of the team.

In this, the first year of the prize, winners were selected from performances given by Opera Holland Park, making its debut during the Holland Park opera season. In asking Anthony Besch to direct Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, Opera Holland Park placed itself in safe hands: too safe, perhaps. Besch was never going to give us Ballo as eerie psychodrama, but here it became a drama of firmly struck poses and fiddly business pedantically timed to coincide with the music.

Perhaps Besch found the theatre difficult. Holland Park is an open-air venue, the stage a set of boards in front of a grand building of indeterminate age, from which singers emerge through handsome doors and elegant arches. In the battle against low-flying planes and splashing fountains, singers receive support from discreet amplification. This has the effect of flattening the sound field, as if every singer is equidistant from every listener, but it allows subtleties that might otherwise get lost on the breeze, and also compensates for moments of weightlessness in the reduced orchestra, ably conducted by David Gibson.

Principal roles went to different singers on alternate nights, and the cast I saw benefited from several strong contributions. Christine Bunning, looking like a young Josephine Barstow, showed pure tone and shapely phrasing as Amelia, while Theresa Goble's Madame Arvidson had the requisite ground- shaking chest register. On this occasion, though, it was the men who dominated: Bruce Rankin rarely looked comfortable as the king, Gustavus, but the voice rang out cleanly, an elegant foil for Gerard Quinn's Anckarstrom, sinister, dark and threatening. It was no surprise that Quinn was the male winner of the aforementioned prize (the alternative Amelia, Jacqueline Evill, won the women's event): he filled the evening air with the menace that the opera demands.

This Ballo was sung in Italian, with no surtitles. It was depressing to see so many people reading the synopsis during the performance. The generalised moves of Besch's production revealed little, so there wasn't much alternative. Except to sing it in English.

Last performances: Sat 17, 2.30 & 7.30pm (box office: 0171-602 7856)

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