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ballo reviewIt’s fair to say that OperaUpClose’s Ballo is not going to float the boat of ardent Verdi purists, but everyone else should expect to enjoy it. The latest production from the award-winning group has some superb moments, and some beautiful singing, though unfortunately it doesn’t quite excite like their previous offering.

This version sees the company take Verdi’s Opera and, following the tradition set down throughout the piece’s history mainly thanks to censorship, changed it around to make it truly their own. In place of the court of the King of Sweden and its courtiers, we have a Swedish flat-pack furniture shop (with a blue and yellow theme) and its staff. The plot remains basically the same despite the massive shift in setting from the original and the approach the company have taken makes it seem like a fresh, new piece.

The manager is in love with his assistant manager’s wife. She in turn loves him. However, the manager is best friends with his assistant manager so finds he cannot go through with trying to seduce her as the love he has for his friend is greater than that he has for the woman. Thanks to an unfortunate accident, the assistant manager finds the two people he loves together, and jumping to an unfortunate conclusion swears death on his friend, teaming up with a man who has been plotting the entire time against the store manager.

This is a work that tackles death, jealousy, envy, sadness and sorrow, yet the libretto, written by Adam Spreadbury-Maher (who also directs), with help from the cast manages to keep everything light-hearted and quite funny. There are several hints that this is not a faithful translation of the old opera the biggest being Abba lyrics and Alan Partridge quotes. This mix creates a story that is at once tragic and comedic, which works well in this setting with the cast mainly performing in a small space of just a few metres squared in very intimate proximity to the audience. The fourth wall is less than opaque here as the actors interact with the audience on several occasions, adding to the overall effect, drawing the audience right into the story.

Before the show begins there is a short video projected onto the wall explaining the opera’s original plot so the sorrowful story is known before everything begins. Throughout the first half there are a lot of laughs, though the production never quite lets you forget the forseeable sadness. The splendidly rich singing of bass Dickon Gough (playing Tom, the cleaner who wants to kill the manager) is present throughout the first half and his malevolence is clearly felt.

The highlights of the performance are the beautifully delicate yet forceful passages, where the cast sing altogether, each with their own melody telling their own stories. Mark Holland’s voice and performance shines through as the assistant manager Renato and the male soprano Alan Richardson’s (playing the PA to the manager) clear and confident falsetto matches his tremendously camp characterisation in both style and quality. The vocals are held together by Ben Woodward on just a single piano in the corner, ably playing the new piano score by Luca Tieppo.

The attention to detail in the costumes (Johnathan Lipman) and set design (Nina Fransson) is admirable and there isn’t a single definable thing in the production that should discourage someone from attending. Saying that this production doesn’t quite reach the bar set so high by their previous work isn’t a bad thing. Taken on its own this is a work that stands on its strong artistic and theatrical merits. The only real demerit is that OperaUpClose have just produced better work in the past and the feeling that there is a spark missing in this production mixes with the knowledge of what they are capable of produces some small dissatisfaction.

Note: There is a changing cast with a choice of two artists to play each role each night apart from the role of Tom who is always played by Gough.

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Reviewed 25/4/13

By Karl O’Doherty

17th Apr – 25th May
King’s Head Theatre, London, N1.

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