Making an Opera – Pete Brooks
Last month I went to Ancona, to direct Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) for Teatro delle Muse. It was only my second opera following on from Tosca two years ago at the same theatre. Directing opera is tricky, there are often a lot of people on the stage; in this case sometimes 50, and rehearsal time was severely limited. Ballo has a lot of scenes involving a chorus and rehearsal time with the chorus is always really tight. The music in Ballo is complex and often the singers attention needs to be as much on the conductor, in this case the brilliant Guillaume Tourniaire, as on their acting. I approached the opera from an unusual and I believe original perspective and was lucky in that my excellent cast were enthusiastic with this idea; but this I know is not always the case. There were some problems; our Georgian baritone was refused a working visa and the replacement could only join rehearsals a week late, but a lot of things went better than expected and we were on stage two days early.
Laura Hopkins beautiful design functioned perfectly, and Simon’s video design was, as always, stunning.
Opera audiences are generally conservative and opera critics extremely knowledgeable. The popular opera repertoire is quite small so most of the audience and all of the critics would have seen several if not many more productions of Ballo, and just as traditional opera staging has its cliches, so do more contemporary approaches. In this staging I attempted to bring new perspectives to the story with a staging which aspired to be an intelligent and informed reading of the opera.
Our production of Un Ballo in Maschera used the original Swedish version of the libretto and relocates the action from c18th Stockholm to the period directly before the 1914-18 war, the transitional moment between old monarchic Europe and the demotic regimes of the twentieth century.
Our staging also located the action of the opera in flashback, the overture revealing Gustavo at the moment of his death in a hospital emergency room. As the overture segues into the opening first act, Gustavo rises from his hospital bed and the action of the opera begins as a dream play or hallucinatory flashback to the events that have led to his assassination. Stalked by demons and haunted by memories of both an illicit desire and premonitions of the violence his premature death will bring to his country, Gustavo’s tragedy is to realise too late the repercussions of his own errors of judgement. At the end of the third act the masked ball metamorphoses back into the hospital emergency room, and Gustavo dies surrounded not by masked revellers, but by the surgically masked doctors and nurses that have been trying to save his life. The audience, we hope, understands that the action of the opera has been the hallucination of the dying king.
The staging uses this device to locate the action in a psychological rather than a real space and to stage the narrative as one that is re-lived by its protagonist with the benefit of hindsight; suffused with guilt and the realisation that a mixture of political naivity and emotional incontinence have likely plunged the country into political upheaval and violence. This dream structure allows us some useful freedoms. As in (Shakespeare’s) Macbeth, we are able to question whether the supernatural is real or a product of the protagonist’s state of mind. As in King Lear we are able to suggest that Gustavo, at the moment of his death has understood too late his poor political and emotional judgement and its disastrous consequences.
Audience response was excellent the critical response also.
Photograph courtesy of Bobo Antic