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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Un Ballo in Maschera

The Verdi drama returns with James Levine on the podium.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ball to the wall: Sondra Radvanovsky in Un Ballo in Maschera. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
This 2012 production re-imagined the opera as a 20th century film noir. It opened to mixed reviews although Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky burned up the stage as the married Count Änckarström and his wife Ameila, the object of the King's affections. Here, Piotr Beczala in the key role of King Gustavo should inject life into the proceedings. Met music director James Levine conducts.

Verdi's Ballo is one of the composer's most popular operas, with an appealing mix of comic elements against the backdrop of personal tragedy and political assassination. It is also one with a confusing history. Roman censors objected to the libretto of Gustavo III depicting an historic event: the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III at a masked ball in 1792. Verdi transported the action to colonial Boston, and the King was demoted to "Riccardo, Count of Warwick."

Mr. Alden has chosen to go with the for the Swedish version. In this first revival of the 2012 production, Piotr Beczala takes over as Gustavo, whose extracurricular interests include Amelia (Sondra Radvonovsky) the wife of his advisor Count von Anckarström (Dmitri Hvorostovsky).

Un Ballo in Maschera returns April 23.

Recording Recommendations:

Ballo has a healthy discography, with major recordings featuring all three of the three tenors and great singers of the past.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Dmitri Mitropoulos (Live recording from 1955, released on Sony Classical in 2011.)
Riccardo/Gustavo: Jan Peerce
Anckarström/Renato: Robert Merrill
Amelia: Zinka Milanov
Ulrica: Marian Anderson
Oscar: Roberta Peters

This magnetic live recording is notable for the presence of Marian Anderson as Ulrica. In 1955, the African-American mezzo-soprano broke the color barrier at the old Met in these performances. Aside from its historic nature, this set also features an old-school cast of stars: tenor Jan Peerce, baritone Robert Merrill, and sopranos Zinka Milanov and Roberta Peters.

Coro e Orchestra della Scala cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1981.)
Riccardo/Gustavo: Plácido Domingo
Anckarström/Renato: Renato Bruson
Amelia: Katia Ricciarelli
Ulrica: Elena Obratszova
Oscar: Edita Gruberova

The Deutsche Grammophon all-star opera players made some fine recordings with Claudio Abbado at La Scala in the '70s and '80s. This Ballo is firmly in the middle of the pack. Plácido Domingo's voice hadn't hardened and spread yet--this is the better of his two recordings of this opera. Renato Bruson does a credible acting job chronicling Renato's jealousy and breakdown. There are some reservations about the ladies here, but the conducting is first-rate.

Tickets for Un Ballo in Maschera are available at MetOpera.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.

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