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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera - opera in three acts (1871)
Riccardo, Count of Warwick and Governor, Massimiliano Pisapia (ten); Renato, his secretary, Franco Fassallo (bar); Amelia, his wife, loved by Riccardo, Chiara Taigi (sop); Ulrica, a fortune teller, Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzo); Oscar, Riccardo’s page, Een Yee You (sop); Silvano, a sailor, Herman Wallén (bar); Samuel, enemy of Riccardo, Tuomas Pursio (bass); Tom, another enemy of Riccardo, Metodie Bujor (bass)
Chorus of the Leipzig Opera
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, Zurich Opera House, 23, 26 November 2005
Directed by Ermanno Olmi.
TV Director, Don Kent.
Stage Design and Costumes, Arnoldo Pomodoro
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic.
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian
EURO ARTS 2055108 [139:00]

By the time of the composition of Ballo, Verdi was a rich and powerful man. He had purchased an estate at Sant’Agata near his birthplace and found peace and great pleasure in its development. He no longer needed to write two operas each year and only agreed a contract if location, singers and subject appealed to him. In 1857 he wanted to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. However, when the Teatro San Carlo in Naples approached him Verdi did not believe the house soprano to be suitable for his vision of Cordelia. Instead Verdi chose the subject of Un Ballo in Maschera based on the true story of the assassination of Gustavus, King of Sweden, at a ball. Verdi asked the poet Antonio Somma to prepare a libretto. When the libretto was submitted to the censor in Naples seven major objections were raised. These involved no fewer than two hundred and ninety seven lines, nearly one third of the text! Their objections involved the assassination of a king, the location in northern Europe, the inclusion of sorcery and the use of firearms on stage. Poet and composer agreed a transfer of location to Boston, the King to Duke and a stabbing not shooting. Still the censor was not satisfied and Verdi cast around for another theatre. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the Teatro Apollo with the King becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick, an English colonial governor, and the Swedish Count Ankarstrom, Renato his secretary.
Riccardo secretly loves Amelia the wife of his secretary and best friend Renato, who warns him that conspirators are plotting to kill him. Despite the warnings he goes, disguised, to hear a gypsy soothsayer to test her powers. There he finds Amelia pleading to be rid of her feelings for him. She is told to pick an herb, at midnight, from below the gallows. Testing the gypsy with his hand, Riccardo, incognito, is told a friend, the first to clasp his hand, will kill him. No one will take his hand until Renato arrives and greets him. Amelia and the King meet as she is at the gallows gathering the herbs, and in a magnificent duet declare their mutual love. Renato comes to warn the King of imminent danger and is left to guard his veiled wife. The conspirators arrive and force her to reveal her identity. Renato believing himself to be betrayed by both his wife and friend joins the plot against the life of Riccardo. Lots are drawn to choose the assassin and Renato is, to his revengeful joy, chosen. Meanwhile the King realises he must break with Amelia; he writes an order appointing her husband to a post abroad. But this is only revealed after Renato fatally wounds him at a masked ball. Riccardo dies proclaiming Amelia’s innocence and asking that all his enemies be pardoned.
In my review of Robert Wilson’s modernist and minimalist production of Aida, (see review) I criticised the approach as it failed to bring alive the personal interactions and relationships of the characters. This production of Un Ballo in Maschera is modernist but not minimalist and it focuses attention on the various relationships as the opera unfolds. Although the Boston edition is used, do not expect to see costumes that would be appropriate to that venue. Likewise the sets are representational rather than realistic as well as being sparse. There is neither desk for Riccardo in the opening scene, (Chs.3-9) nor any gallows in the second act (Chs. 21-28). But it does not matter as the director, Ermanno Olmi, focuses on the singers when in solo, duet or ensemble so that it is clear what is happening. There are times when I wondered about the costumes. That for Ulrica, the gypsy, when her covering, with pegs or spikes protruding, meant little to me. Likewise the ornate royal blue chiffon cape and bouffant head-dress in which Amelia appears at the gallows defeated  (Ch. 22) as did the headgear of the participants in the final scene (Chs.36-41) and which must have done serious damage to the budget. The sparse sets and costumes are colourful and do not detract from what is happening. Like the audience I enjoyed what I saw and was not particularly distracted by the odd incongruity.
The singing of the principals is never less than adequate. Massimiliano Pisapia as Riccardo has an interesting lyric tenor voice of evenness and clarity.  He uses his voice well to express Riccardo’s varying emotions in La rivedra (Ch.4), in the long and lovely duet with Amelia (Ch.24) and in Ella e pura as he dies. Pisapia’s acting and facial expression are a bit wooden and his rather portly appearance does not help him convey the ardent lover, but he doesn’t force his voice and makes every effort at elegant phrasing and legato. As Amelia, Chiara Taigi is a much more convincing actress. Her voice is characterised by good diction and expressiveness. In both Ecco l’orrido campo (Ch.22) and Morro, ma prima in grazia (Ch. 30) she lets her voice soar whilst never losing sight of what is being sung. Yes, there is a little bit of dryness at the top of her voice and a little spread under pressure which are more than compensated for by her acting and even vocal emission. As Ulrica, Anna Maria Chiuri, is a little stretched vocally. Her acting and wide open blue fluorescent eyes, accentuated by the lighting, help convince in Ulrica’s invocation of the spirits of the depths who, in their fleeting appearance, look as ridiculously consumed as she is (Ch. 13). Ulrica has no tent but a futuristic sculpture is flown to represent her hovel. The arrival of Amelia (Ch. 14) lacks dramatic focus and bite. The passing of money to the sailor is well managed.
The most realistic sets come in act three scene one (Chs. 29-35) in Renato’s home represented by a short two-flight staircase to the left of the stage as seen from the audience. The conspirators enter down-stage right whilst Oscar brings the invitation to the ball via a door at the top of the stairs. The stairs also serve as a focus, first as Amelia pleads with her husband to see their child before she dies and then has to descend to pick, unknowingly, the name of the assassin. Chiara Taigi’s acting is superb throughout this scene and where the expressive singing and acting of Franco Fassallo as her husband Renato matches her. Fassallo’s baritone is clear and incisive and only lacks a little more colour and heft. Both his Alla vita che t’arride (Ch. 6) and Eri tu (Ch. 32) are sung with conviction, good diction and vocal as well as facial expression. As Oscar Een Yee You sings characterfully and with good tone.  She manages to convey the pertness of the character despite the earlier weird hat and the heavily blocked boots in the final act.
The final act of Un Ballo in Maschera is often difficult to bring off. In this production the scene starts with the staircase that represented Renato’s home still in place with another by its side as Riccardo’s study. As Riccardo sings of his intention to send Renato to England in Forse la soglia (Ch. 36), and thus be separated from the temptations of their love, Amelia is visible on her stairs, agonising as she hears the words. As a mini coup-de-theatre the stage swings and opens for the finale of the ball scene and the stabbing of Riccardo (Chs. 38-40). Just in case we might miss what is going on, a futuristic sculpture of many knife blades is suspended above the proceedings. As to the headgear of the participants in this scene I still haven’t worked that out. Sufficient to write that the conspirator’s location and the stabbing of Riccardo is well staged by director Ermanno Olmi and is typical of his work in this production.
No Verdi opera, least of all this superbly melodic and dramatic work, can succeed without a committed Verdian on the rostrum. In this performance Riccardo Chailly brings out every nuance of the score to perfection. His contribution really adds gloss to this interesting modernist presentation of Verdi’s score.

Robert J Farr


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