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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Verdi Project: Un ballo in Maschera

Giuseppe Verdi versus the censors of Naples.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Verdi (right) confronts an anonymous Neopolitan censor over the libretto to Un ballo in Maschera.
The original title Una vendetta in domino is visible. Image from 1857 by Delfico.
"Don't forget. I've got tickets for the opera tonight for Un ballo in maschera."
"Oh, stuff Un ballo in maschera!" -- John Mortimer

After the failure of the 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi was looking for an easy success. He thought he had found it with Un Ballo in Maschera, a libretto by Antonio Somma that was itself an adaptation of an older libretto by Eugéne Scribe. Verdi had worked with that legendary (and well-named) Scribe on Les vepres sicillienes. The grand old man of the Paris Opera was the most successful librettist in Europe since Pietro Metastasio. What could go wrong?

The murder of the Swedish king Gustav III at a masked ball in Stockholm in 1792 in was a real historical event. It had already been set as an opera (Gustave III) in 1833 by Daniel Auber, using Scribe's five-act libretto. It had all the ingredients of a good Verdi opera: romance, intrigue, glamor, dramatic scenes and a spectacular finish. It even had a small vein of comedy running through it: this was at its heart the story of a cuckolded husband, an illicit romance and its fatal consequences in a glittering ballroom. (The real Gustav really was killed at a masked ball at his own opera house, by masked conspirators but he died from an infection twelve days later.)

No. The opera that would become Un Ballo in Maschera would go through the wringer with the Neapolitan censors. They objected to everything: the Swedish setting, the fact that Gustavo (as he was now known) was a king, and (most importantly) the central event, the opera's assassination of Gustavo at the titular masked ball. There were rewrites and two title changes. The location was changed repeatedly. Gustavo found himself as the ruler of medieval Pomerania and finally, back in the 18th century as governor of Boston, where the idea of a masked ball among the stiff-necked Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was anachronistic at best. Anachronism or no, the opera finally premiered in Rome in 1860.

Along with those rewrites came name-changes for most of the major characters in the show. Gustavo became "Riccardo, Earl of Warwick." His secretary the Count von Anckarström (who kills him in revenge for the affair between tenor and soprano, it's a pretty standard opera plot) became "Renato, a Creole." (It's doubtful whether Somma knew the rich history of the people of Acadia, but that's another column.) The conspirators, originally "Horn" and "Ribbing" (the names of the historical plotters) became the much blander "Samuel" and "Tom." The witch, "Madame Arvidson" became "Ulrica", one of the few Nordic names to survive. Oscar, the page (a trouser role) and Amelia, the unfaithful heroine, escaped.

As a result of all this moving about, nobody today is really sure where to set Un Ballo in Maschera. Productions veer wildly between the sober setting of Massachusetts (popular with directors who decide to make "Riccardo's" death a distinctly American tragedy.) Others, like David Alden chose to update the show to Stockholm in the 20th century, using the gloomy black-and-white images of the films of Ingmar Bergman as its central motif. Honestly, the setting doesn't really matter, and as a result Ballo has that same motility of location as Rigoletto.

It also ranks just below that work in terms of popularity, being one of the most frequently performed Verdi operas outside the Big Three. The role of Gustavo/Riccardo was well suited to Luciano Pavarotti, and he made the part such a centerpiece of his career that his portrait in the Metropolitan Opera's Founders' Hall is of him as Gustavo. The easy melodies and stirring love duet (delivered at a scaffold!) are memorable, and little touches like the "laughing chorus" (sung by the conspirators as Amelia's husband learns of her affair with his boss) have considerable charm.

The heavy lifting in this opera is done by the baritone, who goes from best buddy to raging conspirator in less time than you can say "Otello." His murderous rage climaxes in "Eri tu," a showpiece aria that, properly delivered, explodes across the stage. The role of the page Oscar is also a favorite, a coloratura part for a high soprano and one of the few major travesti roles in Verdi. Finally, Amelia's demanding writing calls for a top-flight lyric soprano who can be sweet and innocent, even as she cheats on her husband for the greater glory of Sweden/Boston.

Recording Recommendations:

Despite its twisted history, Un ballo in Maschera 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.

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