Verdi Un Ballo In Maschera

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Un ballo in maschera sets a tense love triangle against the background of an assassination plot, and features some of Verdi’s most exquisite choral writing. Political intrigue, illicit love and a disturbing prophecy fuel Verdi’s spectacular 1859 opera, based on the true story of a Swedish king who was murdered during a masked ball. View credits, reviews, tracks and shop for the 1988 CD release of Un Ballo In Maschera on Discogs.

Verdi experts regularly name Un ballo in maschera to be one of his finest works. In spite of this, it’s never reached the heights of popularity of La Traviata or Rigoletto, so a new production by an acclaimed director for a major opera house is a notable event. We watched David Alden’s New York Ballo from the comfort of a London cinema under the Met’s Live in HD series.

Middle period Verdi is highly demanding on its singers: by this stage of his career, Verdi could afford the best and was writing music that was both dramatically intense and laced with bel canto decoration. And whatever your views of the Met, you can't deny that they bring in top quality singers, this Saturday matinee being no exception.

The two male leads were both outstanding. Both Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky showed rock solid technique and richness of timbre, both seeming so effortless in their singing that the music simply poured out of them. Even under the merciless glare of HD close-up shots, neither face seemed strained for a moment. As King Gustavo, Álvarez added delicious devil-may-care rashness; as Renato, Hvorostovsky gave us elegance and authority. At the end of the opera, the roles are reversed as Renato turns to impetuous fury and Gustavo displays genuine nobility. I would travel distance to see both these singers.

The camera served the female leads less well. Sondra Radvanovsky sang the unfortunate Amelia well enough - a touch too much vibrato for me, but that’s a personal taste not shared by everyone - but her face was locked in what Joan Sutherland used to jokingly call a GPE (“general pained expression”). You probably wouldn’t have noticed it from any distance in the auditorium, but the Met video director’s choice of near continuous close-up shots was merciless. As the witch Ulrica, Stephanie Blythe gave a performance that was vocally excellent, but failed to evoke any sense of occult mystery. Kathleen Kim was superb as the page Oscar, her clear coloratura soaring above orchestral and choral wash. With so much vocal talent on show, the trios in Acts I and II were both a joy to hear, strong voices blending immaculately.

David Alden is a director much loved by singers and conductors for his intimate knowledge of every detail of the score, and, with the benefit of his interview on the Met’s site, I can see what this production was trying to achieve. But for two acts out of three, it did little to inspire me. The setting is a fairly indeterminate location in the early twentieth century, with much sartorial elegance. Alden is engaged by the parallel between his hero’s character and that of Icarus, who flies too near the sun in spite of all the warnings given to him, and he lays this on with a trowel, with the stage dominated by a baroque ceiling painting of Icarus (and later, a full scale model), Oscar attired in all white with giant feathered wings, picked out by similar but black wings of dancers at the fatal ball.

For the first two acts, there’s an idea of all the events happening within the closed environment of the same room, which I thought misfired badly. The second half of Act I is supposedly set in the mysterious den of the witch Ulrica, in which our hero is told that he will die by the hand of his best friend. Act II is a tryst in a graveyard under the gallows, surrounded by the ghosts of murderers past. It’s high gothic stuff, and if all the gothic element is to be removed, it seems to me that the effect begs to be replaced by something equally potent. In this production, Ulrica was accompanied by no prop other than a nice black handbag and, eventually, a small skull; the gallows was represented by a single steel girder. It all seemed a bit tame.

Act III was better: the confrontation between Renato and Amelia done in a cleverly angled stage-within-a-stage to gain a sense of intimacy that would be impossible in the full size of the Met’s cavernous stage, while the ball scene was suitably opulent. Act III was attractive to watch and elegant. But overall, I found myself irritated by many details, not least the music hall song-and-dance routine done by Gustavo and Oscar, and by Alden’s decision to switch the character names from colonial Boston to Sweden (the setting of Scribe’s original libretto), which makes a nonsense of the opera’s climax (about how Riccardo/Gustavo has given orders for Renato’s repatriation).

Musically, though, this was a performance to savour. Un ballo in maschera is a marvellous showcase for Verdi’s unique ability to create transcendently beautiful music which is perfectly married to the dramatic action and lavishly daubed with orchestral colour. Whatever my reservations about aspects of the production, the union of Fabio Luisi’s finely judged conducting and such a top class set of singers makes it well worth seeing.

See full listing
Reviewed at Lincoln Center: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City on 8 December 2012
Fabio Luisi, Conductor
Sondra Radvanovsky, Amelia
Dolora Zajick, Ulrica
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Count Anckarström
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David is a co-founder of Bachtrack. He is a musical omnivore interested in almost all types of music, but with a particular love of Italian opera. You can contact him from this link.
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From Disqus user Mr. Nick
The Met constantly reminds us that, 'the ticket price only pays for half of the cost of production...' I suggest the Met save money by not employing radical 'nightmare' settings. (Why, for instance, set Rigoletto in the 1960's? How absurd!) Instead, why not use traditional costumes and staging and concentrate on the beautiful music? Put ticket revenues to its best use by paying the performers.
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A troubled genesis

Un Ballo in Maschera is arguably one of most popular opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Yet it had the most troubled genesis.

Written for the San Carlo in Naples and never performed there

Un Ballo in Maschera was originally composed to be staged in Naples as the last new opera written under the contract between the Teatro San Carlo and Verdi but was never performed there. The major changes imposed by the Bourbon censorship to the composer convinced Verdi to premiere it in Rome instead. Even the Papal censorship in 1859 allowed him more freedom than that of the Bourbons’.

Last (missed) opportunity for a Verdi’s “King Lear

Initially, Verdi had suggested to the San Carlo management another subject: King Lear by William Shakespeare, a long-term project that this time seemed to finally have found a right opportunity. But a new problem came up. To stage King Lear 2 or 3 strong soloists were not enough: 5 at least were needed and the San Carlo couldn’t provide them. These circumstances convinced Verdi, after over 15 years, to finally abandon the project of staging a music version of King Lear.

Verdi & Shakespeare

Verdi was a great admirer of the works of Shakespeare. He believed he shared many ideals with the English playwright, as, he stated, was clearly showed by his works. Some of those ideas are clearly outlined in the correspondence with Antonio Somma about King Lear (Verdi was reluctant in putting in writing his composition ideas – one of the many differences between him and Wagner).

His similarities with Shakespeare, according to Verdi

The major similarity with Shakespeare, according to Verdi, laid in the great importance he attributed to the words and the nuances of the (Italian) language, that the composer aimed to translate into music.

The others are effetto and varietà effectiveness and variety, considered the most important elements of a composition. Monotony for Verdi is nothing less than a capital sin.

Maschera

A new subject for the San Carlo: Gustave ou Le Bal masqué by Scribe

To fulfill his contract with the San Carlo theater Verdi then proposed, after a long search and instead of King Lear, a play by Scribe: Gustave ou Le Bal masqué. The play had been already set successfully on music by French composer Auber’s and premiered at the Paris Opera over 20 years before (in 1833), remaining in the repertory until 1859. The story revolves around the murder of Gustav III, King of Sweden, at a masked ball in 1792.

A risky subject

The assassination of a head of state was yet a risky subject especially in reactionary Naples. Verdi had worked substantially on the play, shortening by almost a half Scribe’s version, before passing it on to librettist Somma. The opera was almost completed when the San Carlo informed Verdi that the censor had refused to pass the libretto unless many major changes were made. The censor demanded the following changes:

the action had to be moved outside Europe and preferibly in the Middle ages; the lovers should under no circumstances be married; a murder on stage was completely out of question.

The break up

Verdi agreed to some changes and presented a rework of the libretto under a new title: “Una vendetta in dominio” turning the king in a “Duke of Pomerania” and setting the action a century back.

But after the assassination by Felice Orsini of Napoleon III, on January 13 1858, the work was once again deemed unfit. The management of the San Carlo went as far as hiring a librettist to independently make major changes to the text.

It was then that Verdi decided to bring the contract to an end. The case ended in court. After months they two parts came to an agreement: the direction recanted the allegations and in return, Verdi agreed to stage at the San Carlo another of his operas, Simon Boccanegra.

In Rome the premiere of Il Ballo in Maschera

Verdi, eager to stage the new opera with as few changes as possible and as close to Naples he could, to make his point against the Neapolitan censors, offered his new work to the Teatro Apollo in Rome.

The Papal censors listed a series of changes that Somma had yet to make. The action was moved to the politically correct Boston, the Swedish king became a British governor and the title from the original “Una vendetta in dominio” became Un ballo in maschera.

The lack of political ideals

Verdi didn’t object too much to these changes. Time and place, he felt, were not so crucial in this opera whilst politics just a secondary theme. In his opinion, the conspirators had personal rather than political reasons for their actions. Even the death of the governor was, from his point of view, the result of a mere error.

The idea the opera aims to express indeed is for Verdi the very lack of political ideals.

In a faceless society, well represented in the glittering trappings of the masked ball, socializing can only happen through a mask. This is showed for instance in the way Oscar’s joyful song is interwoven with the conspirator’s theme. This very theme doesn’t have the political charge of Verdi’s first operas. It’s a way more superficial and empty melody.

At the contrary, the theme sung by the fortune-teller Ulrica is far more powerful, as if, in a world of deception, the truth laid in the gypsy’s world of magic rather than that of the so-called “polite society”.

The fine line between comic and tragic

Verdi Un Ballo In Maschera Best Recording

The alternation of tragedy and comedy is the hallmark of this opera. There’s a strong emphasis in describing the psychological traits of the three protagonists: Riccardo Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston; Renato, Amelia’s husband, his strongest supporter; Amelia who loves and is loved by Riccardo.

Neither the close bonds of marriage nor friendship can protect any of the characters from treachery and betrayal. A friend can turn into a murderer if he believes himself deceived. Amelia goes in search of a herb for protecting herself from her true feelings and meets instead with the specters of her fear, Riccardo.

Katia Ricciarelli talks about Amelia’s role (1980)

The chorus at the beginning suggests that Riccardo is living a dream. This is showed in the way the theme sung by the choir clashes with the conspirators’ motif which is heard at the same time.

Verdi un ballo in maschera iii act met

Riccardo, a political leader, accepts the ambiguous homage of this choir song in an unrealistic light-hearted manner. People express they trust in him as their political leader, as they believe their well-being is at th center of his thoughts. Riccardo instead has only one thing in his mind: Amelia!

Also ambiguous is the following scene, in which Riccardo in disguise pays a visit to the gypsy fortune-teller, where the music expresses the clash between his swinging moods and forced jollity with the melancholy of his singing often in minor mode.

The lover’s duet in the second act is a central point of Un ballo. The music creates the ultimate expression of a sensual and idealistic love. In its perfect alchemy, it is able to describe an insatiable desire that cannot have a place in the real world.

Luciano Pavarotti talks about Riccardo’s role (1980).

Synopsis

Courtiers await an audience with Riccardo, earl of Warwick and Governor of Boston (King Gustavo III), including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing (Tom and Samuel), in the meeting room at the royal mansion (Royal Palace in Stockholm, 1792).

Verdi Un Ballo In Maschera Met Opera Youtube

As Riccardo enters his young ensign Oscar gives him the list of the guests for the forthcoming masked ball, in which is listed also Amelia, wife of his secretary and close friend Renato (Anckarström), he secretly fell in love for. Left alone, Renato warns him of a conspiracy against him.

Un Ballo In Maschera Opera

Riccardo decides to ignores the threat. A magistrate arrives with a decree banishing the fortune-teller Ulrica who has been accused of witchcraft. When Riccardo asks Oscar’s opinions he counsels tolerance and describes her skills at fortune-telling. Deciding to see for himself, Riccardo arranges for his court to pay an incognito visit to Ulrica.

Scene 2: Ulrica, the fortune teller at Boston harbour

In a warehouse at the port, Ulrica summoned the devile before a group of women.

As Riccardo arrives in disguise, Ulrica sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who comes seeking release from her fatal love for Riccardo. Ulrica tells her that she must pick a magic herb at night by the gallows. Riccardo decides to follow Amelia there.

Amelia leaves when Oscar and other members of the court enter along with Riccardo, still incognito, who asks Ulrica to read his palm.She reveals that he will die by the hand of a friend. Riccardo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the assassin. Ulrica replies that it will be the first person who will shake his hand. Riccardo clasps Renato’s hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Renato is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers Riccardo as the conspirators grumble about their discontent.

Act II – Amelia

Amelia arrives by the gloomy gallows to search for the magic herb suggested by Ulrica. When Riccardo appears, she asks him to leave, but unable to resist his ardent words Amelia confesses she loves him. In the same moment her husband Renato rushes in to warn Riccardo to flee because assassins have followed him there. He immediately realizes what is going on between the two.

Un Ballo In Maschera Synopsis

Act III

Scene 1: The study in Renato’s house

Renato tells Amelia of his intention to kill her. She asks to see her young son before dying. After she has left Renato exclaims that is it the governor/king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia. Samuel and Tom arrive and they altogether agree they will assassinate Riccardo. When Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball, the conspirators welcome this chance to execute their plan.

Scene 2: The Governor study

Riccardo alone in his study resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Renato to England.

Un Ballo In Maschera Aria

Scene 3: The Masked Ball

In the ballroom, Renato tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively but finally reveals Renato’s disguise. Amelia and Renato meet. She warns him but Renato refuses to leave, declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her and the husband away. As the lovers say goodbye, Renato stabs the Governor. The dying Renato forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Renato that his wife is innocent. While he dies the crowd praises his goodness and generosity.