Murder among mattresses and meatballs is not quite what Verdi had in mind for “Un Ballo in maschera.”
OperaUpClose, a resourceful company based in a pub in North London, sets a new chamber production of “Ballo” in a branch of the Swedish furniture store Ikea.
The earliest version of the opera was located in 18th-century Sweden, so director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s concept isn’t as crazy as it might first appear.
In his English-language updating, King Gustavas becomes a store manager, and his beloved Amelia a checkout operator. The “masked ball” of the title is a staff knees-up.
In the original plot, Amelia’s husband joins a group of regicidal assassins when he thinks his wife has been unfaithful with the king.
Assassins? In Ikea? If Verdi used exaggerated brush-strokes, he still rooted his dramas in comprehensible emotional truths: love, lust, power.
Here it’s never made clear why Tom, a cleaner, wishes to assassinate his sappy boss. What does he want? Better meatballs? More Allen keys?
Without some crucial scraps of plausibility, the drama collapses like a poorly assembled flatpack.
The libretto relies on slang for easy laughs too: Gag-driven bathos is fine in small doses, not in great cheap gulps. Pianist Ben Woodward doesn’t help matters with inaccurate playing, lumpen phrasing, and a lack of connection with the cast.
Now the upside. Edward Hughes (store manager) has a secure and firm tenor sound, and Becca Marriott negotiates the demanding leaps of Amelia’s music well.
Falsettist Martin Milnes, astonishingly, sings the soprano role of Oscar at pitch, and Olivia Barry (Ulrica) and Christopher Jacklin (Amelia’s husband) round out a good ensemble. (The production is double-cast).
There aren’t many venues where young performers get to try out roles, and learn the ups and downs of stagecraft. OperaUpClose is still a great place for experimenting with wacky ideas, even if some of them fail. Rating: **½.
There’s a much more successful updating at the National Theatre, which has two excellent new shows in repertoire.
The first is Nicholas Hytner’s staging of “Othello,” set in a contemporary military barracks.
Adrian Lester plays the volatile Moor with dazzling grandeur, and is matched by Olivia Vinall as an energetic and surprisingly tomboyish Desdemona.
Their final scene is as emotionally wrenching as it can be.
Hytner creates an everyday setting for the tragedy, which unfolds among dull mess-rooms and functional army furniture.
This everyday quality is reflected in the Iago of Rory Kinnear, who plays down the epic malevolence of the character and gives us a prosaic plotter instead. It’s a valid choice, even if it creates a disjunction with Adrian Lester’s grander style. Rating: ****.
Maxim Gorky’s “The Children of the Sun” (1905), also at the National, is a patchy tragi-comedy about a languid bourgeois family who can’t quite grasp the revolutionary sentiments stirring around them.
It is acted by a uniformly excellent ensemble in Howard Davies’s pacey period-costume production, and ends with a truly surprising stage thrill. Rating: ****.
“Ballo” is in repertoire at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1QN. Information: http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com or +44-20-7478-0160.
“Othello” and “Children of the Sun” are in repertoire respectively at the Olivier and the Lyttelton, National Theatre, Upper Ground, Southbank, London SE1 9PX. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
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Muse highlights include New York and London weekend guides; Craig Seligman and Greg Evans on film; Lewis Lapham on history and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)