Ballo in Maschera, Un


BalloGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Fabio Luisi, David Alden, Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Keith Miller, David Crawford | The Met Live in HD, 8th December 2012

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is an opera of wild dynamism, marrying together scenes of jarring contrasts in a way that makes it difficult opera to stage dramatically and musically in any coherent or consistent way. It certainly not an opera I’ve seen handled convincingly on the stage, but David Alden’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, if it doesn’t quite bring it all together, at least points towards a way that might work. Not playing it entirely straight, not playing it up for laughs either, but playing it scene by scene the way Verdi wrote it.

Quite what Verdi’s true intentions for the work were is of course open to speculation. The work, originally entitled Gustavo III, based on the real-life historical assassination of King Gustav III at a Masked Ball in Sweden in 1792, was notoriously banned by the strict censorship laws of the period in revolutionary Risorgimento Italy, who were unhappy about the depiction of an assassination of a monarch, forcing Verdi to rewrite and rename the characters involved. Even then, the changes applied to the new version, called Una Vendetta in Dominò, weren’t enough to appease the censors in Naples, so a furious Verdi took the work to Rome where it was first performed with the setting changed to Boston in North America as Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. The work is now performed, as it is here at the Met, in its original Swedish setting, but clearly Verdi was forced or felt the need to make compromises to the work in order to avoid censorship even in Rome.

None of this however is likely to have had much of an impact on Verdi’s choices for the musical scoring of the piece and, seeking to show off his range and work with musical arrangements and arias more along the lines of La Traviata than the more through compositional style that he was gradually moving towards, Un Ballo in Maschera consequently has some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies, striking arrangements and dramatic situations. Every dramatic situation is pushed to its emotional limits - whether it’s the love of Gustavo for Amelia, the wife of his secretary, the friendship of Gustavo and Renato which is to fall apart on the discovery of the affair, or the hatred felt by the king’s adversaries - all of it is characterised by Verdi with an extravagance of passion.

An extravagance of melody too which, accompanying the melodramatic developments of the plot’s regal and historical intrigue, to say nothing of incidents involving gypsy fortune tellers, can lead the work to switch dramatically at a moment’s notice between the most romantic of encounters to the deepest gloom, from declarations of love to dire threats of vengeance. The key to presenting the work coherently - if it’s at all possible - is to try to ensure that these moments don’t jar, and with Fabio Luisi conducting the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera here, musically this was a much more fluent and consistent piece than it might otherwise have been, without there being any alteration or variation to the essential tone of the work.

Inevitably, any director is going to look for a consistency of style in the approach to the stage direction, but that’s probably a mistake with this work. It’s not a mistake that David Alden makes. I must admit, having seen Alden’s fondly humorous day-glo productions of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Deidamia, I had a suspicion that Alden might settle for playing up the camp comic side of Un Ballo in Maschera - which is certainly there and probably a more convincing way of playing the work than attempting to do it completely straight if the Madrid Teatro Real production is anything to go by - but I was wrong. Alden plays every single scene in accordance with the tone established by Verdi, light in some places, thunderingly dramatic and brooding in others, but always operating hand in hand with Fabio Luisi to ensure that this can be made to work musically and dramatically.

Where the staging has consistency of theme and a consideration for a meaningful context for the work however, was in Alden’s typically stylish and stylised production designs, created here by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Evoking a turn of the twentieth century setting that takes the work entirely out of its historical context (notwithstanding the personages reverting to their original Swedish names), the production had the appearance of a Hollywood Musical melodrama, as lavishly stylised as a Bette Davis melodrama, but consistent within its own worldview, and it worked splendidly on this level. The set was a little overworked in places, with dramatic boxed-in angles and heavy Icarus symbolism in a prominent painting, but it clearly responded to the nature of the work, playing more to the sophistication that’s there in the music than the often ludicrous libretto. Alden however even found a way to incorporate this into the production with little eccentric touches - such as the eye-rolling madness of Count Horn, which is not a bad idea.

Similar consideration was given towards the singing and the dramatic performances of the cast assembled here, which was - as it needs to be - forceful and committed. The combination of voices was also well judged, the Met bringing together a few Verdi specialists well-attuned to the Verdi line - Marcelo Álvarez (who I’ve seen singing the role of Gustavo/Riccardo before), Sondra Radvanovsky and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky - all of them strong singers in their own right, but clearly on the same page as far as the production was concerned. A few regular Met all-rounders like Stephanie Blythe and Kathleen Kim also delivered strong performances in the lesser roles of Madame Arvidsson and Oscar that really contributed significantly to the overall dynamic. This was strong casting that brought that much needed consistency to a delicately balanced work where one weak element could bring the whole thing down.

Alden and Luisi were clearly aware of this and played to the strengths of the charged writing for these characters. Act II’s duet between Álvarez and Radvanovsky was excellent, hitting all the right emotional buttons, each of the characters delving deeply to make something more of the characters than is there on the page of the libretto. Hvorostovsky brought a rather more tormented intensity to Renato in his scenes with Radvanovsky’s Amelia that seemed a little overwrought, but this paid off in how it made the highly charged final scene work. Un Ballo in Maschera is still a problematic work, but with Luisi and Alden’s considered approach and this kind of dramatic involvement from the singers, the qualities of the opera were given the best possible opportunity to shine.

MascheraGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008 | Jesús López Cobos, Mario Martone, Marcelo Álvarez, Violeta Urmana, Marco Vratogna, Elena Zaremba, Allessandra Marianelli | Opus Arte

I’m always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. They certainly have the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what’s a Verdi opera without an exclamation of “Vendetta!” somewhere in it?), rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What they lack in sophistication – certainly when compared to later Verdi – they make up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment that are the principal reasons why Verdi’s most famous operas (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto) remain popular favourites.

Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Melodrama in 3 Acts”) has all the above criteria in spades. It’s far from sophisticated, it has a revolutionary plot combined with an illicit romantic love and doomed relationships and it has some terrific singing roles for the performers to show their range. It’s the kind of storyline that is laughably ridiculous and wouldn’t work convincingly anywhere outside of an opera stage. But it is an opera, and if it works there (although not everyone will think it does) it’s because Verdi’s propulsive score carries you through the weaknesses with such memorable tunes that you are swept along (humming to yourself) rather than trying to assess the credibility of the drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, the libretto written by Antonio Somma, based on a work by Eugène Scribe. Un Ballo in Maschera was indeed originally composed as Gustavo III, but the opera was banned by the authorities while it was in rehearsals in Naples in 1858 after the attempted assasination of Napoleon III , as the opera contained a conspiracy plot.  The opera was reworked for Rome with the setting changed to America where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick, is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts. His rule is not universally accepted and there is consequently plots brewing for deaths that have occurred under his governance, but Riccardo refuses to let such rumours restrict his movements or his social gatherings. When papers are delivered to him to have a fortune-teller Ulrica banished from the state, Riccardo, out of curiosity, dons a disguise and takes his guests to see her. She also foresees death for Riccardo, and at the hands of a close friend.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato’s wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. “Heavens, my husband!”, exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed (“Vendetta!”) at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? “Death!”, of course.

Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it’s firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It’s hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that’s what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There’s no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that’s certainly the case here.

This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks – LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 – are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.