Un Ballo in Maschera is a tricky and confusing piece. It contains some of Verdi’s most sparkling and electric music but at the same time it’s wrapped around an awkward and melodramatic plot. Unfortunately for this production, no attempt at actually trying to rectify the plot, or presenting an interesting and dynamic staging, was made. The Royal Opera House’s new production of this Verdi classic sees the setting move from Verdi’s original Boston to pre-First World War Austro-Hungary. Actually a true story about a real king of Sweden, and moved to Boston for Verdi’s opera, we can understand and accept German director Katharina Thoma’s decision to once again move it to a different time and place.

With a stellar cast billed, one would hope at least that Verdi’s music would fill both the auditorium of the Royal Opera House and the hearts and minds of the audience members. The much sort after Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, makes his role debut with ROH as Riccardo. Calleja suits the part well, a fun and outgoing role with some lovely tunes to boot. At times his bleating vibrato can hinder the ear’s full pleasure, but ultimately the tenor makes a very good job of it. Dimitri Hvorostovsky presents a fine Renato, but is somewhat disappointing vocally, having expected so much. Liudmyla Monastyrska is a perfect Amelia, with some astonishingly beautiful notes. Her duet with Calleja in Act Two in particular was a highlight of the evening. Lauren Fagan too deserves mention for a bright voiced and characterised Oscar.

Apart from the lovely singing there isn’t much going for this production. The acting for the most part seemed hammy, the sorceress and hunchback in particular, with an annoyingly creaky Gothic set in addition. Daniel Owen, a veteran of ROH, was unable to keep the whole thing together musically either. A number of times tempi did not settle and were out with the singers on stage; I think this was particularly hampered by Owen’s significantly wavy and inaccurate conducting style.

Un Ballo in Maschera has a need for something a lot more interesting and better put together to be successful as a piece of theatre and not just a music piece. With its simple and mostly gauche blocking, you wonder what in fact director Thoma had done at all. With some wonderful music and singing I would suggest instead you might want to listen to a recording than sit through this drab, albeit new, production.

Un Ballo in Maschera plays at the Royal Opera House until 17 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.