The title of Un ballo in maschera may suggest elegance and courtly high jinx, but Verdi’s opera, with its vengeful assassins, Beelzebub-conjuring sorceress and murderous drawing of lots is a dark, tautly plotted tragedy of errors that’s not short on dramatic twists and surprises. This may have been a concert performance at Cadogan Hall, but Chelsea Opera Group’s Un ballo in maschera wasn’t an evening for the faint of heart, with a strong team of soloists packing a vivid punch.
The COG orchestra contributed, too, to the robustness of the performance, any lack of Italianate finesse and secure intonation ameliorated by the vigour of the playing, as Anthony Negus kept pushing things along even if he wasn’t able always to pull musicians and singers together.
Charne Rochford, a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Marius Vlad, displayed plenty of passion and verve in the role of Gustavo, and if there was not so much grace and subtlety then, energised to the hilt, he certainly hit all the high notes. Rochford brought shades of darkness to his Act 1 warning, ‘Alla vita che t’arride’ and, in a more nuanced ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti!’ in Act 3, drew more empathy for Gustavo’s tragic dilemma.
The lovely timbre of Phillip Rhodes’s capacious baritone paradoxically conveyed every drop of Anckarström’s bitter jealously, his voice swelling generously, the phrases sailing with Italianate elegance. Alison Langer’s Oscar was very pleased with himself, but the soprano’s bright gaiety and characterful delivery brought some welcome lightness. Langer made much of the words during Oscar’s fittingly excitable introduction to the Ulrica scene, and was vivacious and nimble in the page’s Act 3 Canzone. As Ulrica, the contralto Maria Schellenberg’s juicy lower range had plenty of dark richness, only occasionally being overpowered by the orchestra.
The interjections of the two conspirators, Counts Ribbing and Horn, were delivered with urgency and dramatic intensity by the basses Thomas D. Hopkinson and Jack Holton, respectively, sharpening the tension that was sometimes missing in the orchestral accompaniment. In the minor roles, Magnus Walker (a Judge), Arthur Bruce (Cristiano) and John Vallance (Amelia’s servant) were accomplished.
As officers and sailors, townsfolk and maskers, the COG chorus, though fairly small of number, were in hearty voice, the ladies’ invocation in the sorceress’s cavern incisive and precise, the subsequent intrusion by the disguised gentlemen of Gustavo’s court boisterously rousing.
The evening’s shining star, though, was undoubtedly Nadine Benjamin in the role of Amelia. The soprano demonstrated vocal virtuosity and dramatic nous, bringing dignity and refinement to the role, modulating her timbre from sombre to bright and using vocal colour to reveal inner conflicts. Benjamin was impressively off-score for ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’, the recitative brimming with emotion and betraying Amelia’s nervousness. There was a lovely softening of the voice when she pondered bewilderedly, “che ti resta, perduto l’amor,/ che ti resta, nio povero cor?” (What is left, once my heart is dead, what is left, my poor heart?), and then terrific flexibility as her terror increased (complemented by the fine playing of, first, the oboe, and then timpani). The culmination of the ensuing duet with Gustavo was notable for both its power and shine, as Amelia was overwhelmed by love, melancholy and longing for death.
Benjamin had strength and range at the bottom, too, particularly in the Act 2 trio, plunging down from tense, sotto voce fragments of agitation and distress, as she urged Gustavo to flee and ratcheting up the dramatic tension of their exchanges. Act 3’s ‘Morro, ma prima in grazia’ overflowed with sensitivity, the voice carefully modulated, as Amelia begged her husband for one last opportunity to embrace her son before her death. The lucidity of her pleas communicated her honesty, the nuances of colour and phrasing her despair. A knockout performance.
Gustavo III, King of Sweden – Charne Rochford, Amelia – Nadine Benjamin, Count Anckarström –Phillip Rhodes, Oscar – Alison Langer, Ulrica – Maria Schellenberg, Count Ribbing – Thomas D. Hopkinson, Count Horn – Jack Holton, Cristiano – Arthur Bruce, Amelia’s servant – John Vallace, A Judge – Magnus Walker; Conductor – Anthony Negus, Chelsea Opera Group Chorus & Orchestra
Cadogan Hall, London; Sunday 22nd October 2023.
ABOVE: Nadine Benjamin