Masked Ball reviews

A MASKED BALL, Surrey Opera at The Playhouse, Sevenoaks, Saturday 4 March, 2006

An abridged review taken from The Operatalent website.

Whether in Boston or Stockholm, Act One opens in a palace and I felt Prav Menon-Johansson’s sets and costumes could have been more lavish. They mainly consisted of tall, plain, white rectangular gauze boxes that were moved into various positions for the different scenes. Each contained a light in the base, and this combined with most of the scenes being lit from below supplied a wonderful atmosphere of eerie tragedy.

I was very impressed with the overall casting. For example, Helen Massey was perfect as Oscar. I liked her clear pronunciation and slick delivery of the patter. She had no problem with the tricky coloratura and it was all done with technical polish and musicality. The same intelligent casting applies to the two conspirators played by Andrew Foan and Edwin Hawkes. When singing together in harmony as well as in unison their voices blended perfectly. I liked Hawkes’ rich, confident bass and Foan’s a warm, resonant baritone sound. Angela Fuller’s performance of Ulrica was electric. The way she coloured certain words and phrases to give dramatic emphasis was very exciting. She’s more of a mezzo than a contralto, but she was so skilful in her use of chest register that we had no doubt that the fortune teller was in league with Satan.

The singers in the principal parts were all at a professional level. Christopher Ovenden as Gustavus could have been more secure in the higher parts of the role, but his voice rang out with an admirable clarity and he has an enthusiastic stage presence. Sarah Estill is not a Verdian lirico spinto soprano and I would have expected the role of Amelia to be too heavy for her. However, she handled it well, and if at moments she lacked the weight to carry the drama, I found her singing of “Ma dall’arido stelo” as moving as any to be heard in the major opera houses of the world. The Anckarstroem, Colin Campbell, had a commanding attitude and his hefty voice carried the part well. He could have been a bit more subtle, but the colour of his voice is just right for the role.

Perhaps the musical stars of the show were the chorus, who were exceptional. It is only a small ensemble but their strong voices and confident entries gave the impression that twice their number were singing. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the evening came from the overwhelming emotion of their precise harmonies and soaring melodies driving the action forward.

Nicholas Bartlett

Simon Ames in The Surrey Mirror Guide, 2 March 2006

Surrey Opera, The Harlequin Theatre, Redhill

Giuseppe Verdi changed the face of grand opera in the mid-19th century. He understood his audiences and had a healthy respect for the box office. Unusually, the plot of A Masked Ball was based on a true story – the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden while attending a masked ball at his own palace. The composer brought sentiment, passion and character in generous proportions when he wrote this work in 1858.

Surrey Opera’s production at The Harlequin was the stage première for a new English translation by Amanda Holden. It was an innovative development that worked very well, one that will bring fresh opportunities for amateur companies of similar status.

On the musical side, a sizeable orchestra of 26 musicians under the baton of Jonathan Butcher provided a fulsome sound. His 30-year experience of musical art and operatic interpretations is one of the main pillars by which this enterprising company realizes high quality productions and the essential sponsorships that enable big works to be staged.

Supporting the impressively large amateur chorus of 35 members of Surrey Opera were some fine young professionals with top-rated international CVs. On Friday night, Christopher Ovenden evoked the role of King Gustavus with command and sincerity, a demanding part as time off stage is minimal in all three acts. Sarah Estill took the key part of Amelia, the focus of the King’s illicit love affair with the wife of his best friend, the Count Anckarstroem. These two successfully brought to life the passion and entreaty of the affair in Act 2.

Angela Fuller was eerily convincing in the role of the mystic Arvidson who predicts the death of the King. Andrew Foan and Edwin Hawkes skilfully exemplified the lighter sides with their respective portrayals of Count Ribbing and Count Horn of the social milieu of the Swedish court.

Playing the relatively minor role of Oscar, a page to the King, Helen Massey impressed enormously with her accuracy, vocal control and projection. Winner of an Exhibition Scholarship with the Royal College of Music, Helen has a list of fine achievements already to her credit for her young years. A telling character of her performance was the confidence that marked her vocal entry and delivery. A most promising young soprano.

William Relton’s acclaimed direction and Jonathan Butcher’s musical interpretation brought out the very best of this landmark production, an all-inclusive, well-rounded achievement by one of the best companies of their kind in the south-east.

Elena Hill in Sevenoaks Chronicle, 16 March 2006

Surrey Opera, Sevenoaks Playhouse, Friday 3 March

Verdi’s tale of two lovers forced to mark their true feelings was an immediate success when it was first produced, but was then heavily censored due to its sensitive political content. The action of the piece was transferred away from the Swedish court to Boston with King Gustavus becoming Governor Riccardo.

Surrey Opera reverted in this production to the original setting with great success, the finely drawn characters playing out their fates against an increasingly claustrophobic and atmospheric backdrop.

Philip O’Brien was superb as the love-struck King Gustavus. His rich and well rounded tenor voice and his endearing persona combined to give a thoroughly convincing and moving performance. He worked particularly well with Elaine McKrill who, as a dignified and graceful Amelia, possessed a beautifully full soprano voice.

Direction, by William Relton, was slick and intelligent. I particularly liked his management of the chorus closing Scene 1, Teco darem di subito, which saw the men standing on chairs to change into their disguises in order to visit the sorceress Arvidson. An evocative white panelled set added to the distinction of the production and was effective in representing the court, the snow-covered gallows and Arvidson’s realm.

A Review by Kate Davies

A Masked Ball, Surrey Opera, Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, Thursday 23 February 2006

On Thursday 23rd February a group of hardy supporters braved the February cold to attend the opening night of Surrey Opera’s latest work, A Masked Ball.

Our entertainment began with an excellent overture conducted with gusto as always by Jonathan Butcher. The entrance of the male chorus, carrying props seemed to symbolise the class and culture of Sweden from the court of Gustavus III. Phillip O’Brien’s King was confident and strong. His obsession with the married woman he loved rather than affairs of state was believable and had a familiar, art imitating life, ring to it. Tim Baldwin brought a rich and dignified Anckarstoem to life which was all the more affecting at his grief on learning of his wife’s ‘infidelity’ and the King’s forgiveness at the denouement of the opera. Amelia, played by Elaine McKrill, had all the attributes of a leading lady – strength, stage presence and musicianship. It was easy to believe that both men would have fallen for her. The dark presence which Angela Fuller brought to the part of Arvidson was matched by her excellent voice and acting. I would have believed her prophesy! However Helen Massey’s Oscar brought the stage to life with a performance of vitality and light which made me miss her every time she exited. She seemed so comfortable on the stage that she made performing look very easy indeed – and we all know it isn’t. Andrew Foan, Edwin Hawkes and Andrew McIntosh as the conspirators and sailor respectively, along with a very strong chorus, added dramatic weight and substance to the piece.

On entering the theatre the audience immediately met with a stylish, modern, black and white Swedish display of giant ‘Ikea lamps’. These served to give subtle yet dramatic lighting effects during the action and created shadows which mirrored the changing mood of the piece. They also adapted the working space for the performers, closing in as Gustavus’ demise approached, and helped to overcome sightline problems as the audience could see through them to characters hiding on the sidelines as part of the action. A large circle covering the floor centre stage drew the eye very effectively as it was there that much of the intrigue and drama of the piece was to unfold. The balance and symmetry of the scene was broken, simply by a red and gilt chair – that of Gustavus.

There was a lovely ‘Billy Budd’ moment in the piece and one can never resist a wry operatic smile when characters become completely unrecognisable by donning woolly hats, tiny masks or a gossamer veil that seems to conceal all – at least to the husband!

This was a very enjoyable night at the theatre with contrasts in music, mood and setting. In particular the entrance of Arvidson with the hooded female chorus was in sharp contrast to the scene of Gustavus with his courtiers. The amusement of the crowd as a backdrop to the agony of Amelia and Anckarstroem was particularly well done and I loved the ball in which the whole cast looked beautiful and the choreography was well executed and completely non-intrusive to the main action. Overall my only slight criticism is that at times I would have liked a little more light on the faces of the protagonists.

Well done Surrey Opera – another winner!

Message received 25 Feb 2006 from Amanda Holden, the translator

I really enjoyed Thursday night so much. I thought the performance very remarkable indeed and the audience was totally enthralled, it kept the wonderful energy all the way through. So many congratulations to you for bringing off such a triumph.

And thanks for using my words, they came over very clearly - that’s not always the case I find! It was great to hear them performed for the first time.

All best wishes for all the performances and please pass my congratulations to everyone