the time of the composition of Ballo, Verdi was
a rich and powerful man. He had purchased an estate at
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
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.
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,
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
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
to be betrayed by both his wife and friend joins the
against the life of Riccardo. Lots are drawn to choose
the assassin and Renato is, to his revengeful joy, chosen.
the King realises he must break with Amelia; he writes
an order appointing her husband to a post abroad. But this
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
singing of the principals is never less than adequate.
Massimiliano Pisapia as Riccardo has an interesting lyric
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
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,
Maria Chiuri, is a little stretched vocally. Her acting
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
Amelia (Ch. 14) lacks dramatic focus and bite. The passing
of money to the sailor is well managed.
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 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
blocked boots in the final act.
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
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
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
Ermanno Olmi and is typical of his work in this production.
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
Robert J Farr
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