Our first ever production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) has opened under the baton of former Music Director Richard Farnes, whom we welcome back for the first time since our triumphant Ring cycles in 2016.
We caught up with Richard to find out what Verdi means to him, what is unique about this opera, and what he is most enjoying about his return to Opera North.
Is Un ballo in maschera an opera that you have always wanted to conduct? Why?
I wouldn't readily ignore the opportunity to work on any of Verdi's later operas. This one seems to me to be one of his most consistently exciting works, perfectly proportioned and dramatically astute.
What do you think is special about this opera?
It is interesting that in this instance Verdi did not feel the need to make the extensive revisions that he undertook to the operas written chronologically on either side of it, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos and La forza del destino; it is almost as if Verdi knew he'd "got it right" first time. The creation of Un ballo in maschera was relatively swift, and its storyline traces a succinct sequence of events in a specific location, taking place over the course of a few days at most.
Like two of those other operas I've mentioned, Un ballo in maschera's leading protagonist is a man of power who lives with a conflicting interest between his moral sense of public duty and the emotions of his private life. King Gustavo, sung here by the highly experienced Rafael Rojas, must be one of most detailed character studies of all Verdi's tenor roles, and this production illustrates clearly the bi-polar nature of the king's personality, swinging rapidly from the optimism of his upbeat exchanges with the page Oscar (played by Tereza Gevorgyan) to the brooding pessimism elicited by his best friend and confidant Count Anckarström (Phillip Rhodes).
Some of the opera's main themes chime somewhat with the current debate about how much the private lives of powerful figures, whether in politics or business, should affect our view of their work. Where today if we don't like them we're supposed to vote them out, in those days they just stuck the knife in.
Are there any particular highlights in the score for you?
The duet between the king and Amelia in the second act must be one of the most beautiful yet understated that Verdi ever wrote, in the sense that for much of it he merely yearns to hear her say the words "I love you". Amelia's own arias are superbly crafted, the one intertwined with a solo cor anglais, the other with a solo 'cello; and the exciting interplay of chorus, stage band and main orchestra in the final Ball is thrilling.
But perhaps my favourite passage occurs just after that: the slow Mazurka played by a reduced string orchestra apparently in a neighbouring room, over which the same two characters from the duet exchange their final words prior to his assassination. While the "background" music suggests a moment of relative calm, the emotional and psychological pressure on the two protagonists is immense, and is conjured up perfectly by the rapid delivery of their text.
You've conducted a lot of Verdi lately – what does Verdi mean to you?
I was very fortunate to work with the late Sir Edward Downes on a number of Verdi's operas when I was younger, both as a pianist and as his assistant conductor. Ted had a very special way with Verdi; not only was he a mine of information on historical matters of the composer's life, he also conducted his music in a way that made it sound so natural and spontaneous. I suppose I have always aspired to that same objective. In Un ballo in maschera, as so often in Verdi's operas, the rhythmic heartbeat and melodic invention of the music are supremely aligned to its dramatic purpose.
Many of the principals are making their role debuts. What does this bring to the piece?
Opera North has assembled a cast, the majority of whom – along with director, conductor, chorus and orchestra – have never worked on the opera before. Yet many of us already know each other well, having worked together on other productions (I myself have collaborated with director Tim Albery on Macbeth, Don Carlos and Otello from Verdi's canon alone), and the sense of trust that this engenders hopefully lends support in this endeavour to a new face, such as the extremely talented Hungarian soprano Adrienn Miksch, making her debut here, and in the role, as Amelia.
This trust also encourages spontaneity and gives us the courage to try out different ideas in rehearsal to make the drama speak more directly, in the knowledge that we might later abandon them; in other words, we're not afraid to make mistakes! Moreover it is thrilling to witness a singer develop into a new role so well suited to them, by a mixture of raw talent and sheer diligence; I would suggest that Phillip Rhodes's Anckarström is going to open up all sorts of superb Verdi baritone roles to him in the future.
What are you most enjoying about working with the Orchestra of Opera North again?
They are so generous! Generous in their playing, generous in their commitment, their trust and their enthusiasm for this repertoire (several players have already mentioned how much they enjoy this piece). They work incredibly hard and yet manage to retain a fabulous sense of humour in rehearsals, and I think this helps to explain how they produce such good performances! And before you ask, I would say exactly the same about the Chorus and the stage management of Opera North too.
To book tickets or find out more, please visit the Un ballo in maschera webpage.
Director Tim Albery and Conductor Richard Farnes in rehearsal | Credit: Tom Arber
Patricia Bardon as Ulrika Arvidson, Tereza Gevorgyan as Oscar and Rafael Rojas as King Gustavus in rehearsal | Credit: Tom Arber
Conductor Richard Farnes in rehearsal | Credit: Tom Arber