Flat pack furniture. You either love it or hate it. The new adaptation of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera by OperaUpClose? You’ll either love it or …well, you will almost certainly love it.
Taking the original work with a handful of salt, director Adam Spreadbury-Maher (also artistic director of The King’s Head Theatre) has translated the opera’s Swedish politics to a context that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s sweated profusely assembling a plywood table.
The action takes place in Ballo, a cheap-and-cheerful homeware store on the North Circular. Verdi’s protagonist was King Gustavo of Sweden; Spreadbury-Maher’s is Riccardo, store manager. Riccardo’s right hand man, Renato, is married to checkout operator Amelia (although she and Riccardo secretly have eyes for each other). Ulrica is a university graduate who can’t quite figure out how she’s wound up working overtime in Customer Complaints (sound familiar?), and earns a bit of extra cash running a psychic hotline, while Tom is the cleaner. And flapping amongst it all is Oscar, a deliciously flamboyant PA with a soprano voice that hits notes no man has ever gone before.
A light-hearted approach to Verdi, perhaps, but Spreadbury-Maher uses the comic setting to emphasise the opera’s tragic undertones. By juxtaposing the bleak futility of the characters’ lives with the pseudo energy and nonchalance so often used as a defence to mask our inner feelings and desires, the production cleverly portrays two sides of humanity. We laugh in response to the honest and observational libretto (“typical, no tissues” Amelia observes, as she stands alone crying in the Ballo car park), precisely because it resonates in all of us. After Renato catches Amelia with another man, the couple stand devastated while Tom dances around in glee at the potential gossip of the situation. Laughter or pity? Perhaps we choose both, but one tolls louder than the other.
The singing is sensational, and would satisfy the souls of the most die-hard opera fans. Becca Marriott, who plays Amelia, is undoubtedly destined for stardom. Olivia Barry gives a priceless performance as the unambitious Ulrica, gazing into her lava lamp to read the stars, and male soprano Martin Milnes is a top actor with a charming voice. Daniel Roberts provides a wonderfully cooperative piano accompaniment, cradling the singers’ voices and following them wherever they go.
Side-splittingly funny, vivacious, and definitely in tune with North-West London, Ballo is a treat. With a cast of sterling actors (all of whom collaborated with Spreadbury-Maher to develop the libretto along with their characters), and a piano reduction played with all the spirit and gusto of an orchestra, this is Verdi colliding head on with life as we know it.
As the solidity of its fan base develops, OperaUpClose is becoming increasingly adventurous with its approach to opera. Giving audience expectation a wide berth, the directors make big moves on well-known works. And why shouldn’t they? “They make opera so entertaining”, said one audience member, “which is nice because it can often seem so hard to be a part of”.
Ballo runs at The King’s Head until May 25th 2013. Tickets £19.50 conc., £22.50 full.