Verdi’s Many Masks

The Canadian Opera Company open a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera next week.  It’s placed in a modern setting, one that might have you wondering whether Verdi’s instructions are being flouted by a directorial intervention.  But upon closer examination you’d admit that this one is different.

Imagine if we were to play an operatic game of “Where’s Waldo” with Ballo, pointing to all the instances of concealment or secrecy, of people wearing some kind of mask. If we did so we’d include almost everyone and every minute of the opera.  While the title might refer to the actual masked ball in the last scene, the whole opera is one big masquerade.

Shall we try a role call?

  • Riccardo conceals his love for Amelia for almost the entire opera. At one point he participates in a visit to a fortune-teller, singing a song disguised as a sailor, as a lark.  The fortune-teller is not amused.
  • Amelia is married to Renato, but conceals her own passion for Riccardo
  • Oscar? A page, more or less truthful except for the cross-gender writing.
  • Ulrica the fortune-teller sees the truth, but sings to a room full of skeptics and people in disguise, a kind of inversion of truth.
  • Sam & Tom are part of a secret conspiracy against Riccardo
  • Other than the fortune teller, Renato has been the only truthful one, loyally standing by Riccardo when others conspire. Once he stumbles upon his wife’s infidelity Renato joins the conspiracy. Of course, speaking of illusions and masks, there is only the appearance of infidelity, given that Amelia and Riccardo have never consummated their love.

Indeed it might make more sense to identify the moments in the opera when people are being truthful and open, as these are both the exceptions to the rule, and also, the climaxes of the music.  If you don’t ever bother with the story, but listen simply to the passions of the music, you’ll see that this is true.

But there’s the other –bigger—masquerade going on.  One can’t miss Verdi’s republican sentiments.   But of course he was a supporter of the Risorgimento, the movement leading to the unification of Italy.

His operas bubble with revolutionary fervor and criticisms of nobility.  A quick list?

  • Nabucco
  • Il trovatore
  • Rigoletto
  • Simon Boccanegra
  • Don Carlos
  • Aida

And we would want to add the most blatant, if conflicted, of all to that list, namely Ballo, an opera that was itself forced to conceal its identity.  Originally? Ballo concerned a Swedish King killed by a conspiracy. Because of a contemporary assassination attempt, Verdi was forced to change the setting to pre-revolutionary Boston.  The character names were changed even though the behaviour continues to be quaintly courtly.

Stephen Lord (Photo: Christian Steiner)

Ballo is conducted by Stephen Lord (Photo: Christian Steiner)

In some respects Verdi comes closest to removing his own mask in Ballo.  There is no more powerful uprising music than the stirring melody Verdi gives his conspirators, when Renato sings “dunque l’onta di tutti sol una”, a tune so powerful that Verdi has to arbitrarily clamp a lid on the scene after it’s been sung, because it is as genuinely stirring as an anthem.  Yet Riccardo is mostly a likeable character, and so, while we will see a conspiracy unfold, we’ll be conflicted because Riccardo is not an evil monarch.  Was Verdi conflicted? or maybe he was concealing his sentiments.  The opera balances a romantic love-triangle and the conspiracy, linked by the workings of fate.  In this melodramatic tale, no one is really author of their own fate, but instead at the mercy of forces beyond their control, thereby balancing the political with the personal, uprising with romance.  Had Verdi shown us any more of his true feelings –perhaps in a story where his sympathies for the underdog were more blatant—that opera would never have seen the light of day, particularly if the characters were not ruled by fate.  Considering the outcome –of a King murdered—this is as overt as Verdi can get.  Revolutionaries such as Amonasro and the Marquis di Posa may get to sing their dreams: but they normally die afterwards.

And so we come full circle when the production here in Toronto modernizes the tale, to set it in the United States of the 1960s.  No purist can legitimately defend a tradition, because for most of its history Ballo has been in its Massachusetts exile.  Only in the past few decades have producers begun to restore Verdi’s original Swedish setting; yet I have never seen a printed score that doesn’t use the locales & the character names pertinent to America rather than Sweden.

So if anything Ballo’s real home is America.  According to the COC website, the Berlin Staatsoper production that’s coming this week to the Four Seasons Centre “sets Verdi’s abiding love triangle in the American south of the 1960s, with its undertones of Kennedy-era tensions and power plays.”

I’m eager to see & hear how it works. (click image for further information about the production).  The COC Ballo runs Feb 2nd- 22nd.

(l – r) Catherine Naglestad as Amelia, Piotr Beczala as Riccardo, Dalibor Jenis as Renato, Anna Prohaska as Oscar, Oliver Zwarg as Samuel and Andreas Bauer as Tom in the Berlin Staatsoper production of Un ballo in maschera. Photo: Ruth Walz © 2008

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7 Responses to Verdi’s Many Masks

  1. Maria Benedek says:

    Thank youn for your well summarized notes on Ballo. Looking forward to your review after the opening

    Maria B

  2. Gianmarci says:

    This is as good an explanation of this opera as I’ve read anywhere else! Thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever really realised the revolutionary themes as you’ve described. And yes, that great tune Renato sings with Sam and Tom (those names always make me chuckle…more evidence of the humour that runs throughout) is like a call to arms but then quickly halted by Oscar’s invitation to the ball. The big truthful moment is as you allude to, the love duet when Amelia and Riccardo finally confess their love in one of the greatest themes Verdi ever wrote.

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you! I find the romantic music between Riccardo & Amelia as good as anything Verdi wrote, passionately irresistible. And after all the whispering, sneaking and smirking, the genuine expressions in that act (both the passion AND the terror of pursuit) are much more powerful than what came before. I suspect it will be just as good in its modern guise because the emotions are so perfectly expressed in what Verdi composed.

  3. lighthouse75 says:

    Interesting take you have on this opera, one of my Verdi favorites! Thank you. For myself personally, as a trained historian and someone who lived in Sweden for several years, I don’t want to see any production that doesn’t go back to the original Swedish setting and do so correctly. Back in the 1970s I saw a production at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with Swedish text and the great Ragnar Ulfung as the king. Being the consummate actor he was, Ulfung had researched everything about the time period and about Gustav III and gave the best impersonation of him you’ll ever see — all while singing magnificently, of course. That’s as good as it gets. One of the Stockholm museums displays the chair into which Gustav was placed after he was shot (yes, he was shot, not stabbed), still with a blood stain on it. A very moving experience for me. A few years ago I saw a production at the Met that purportedly restored the Swedish setting. The king was stabbed, and a stupid ballet took place that nearly distracted you from this pivotal moment; plus the designer couldn’t even get the colors of the Swedish flag right. I think I’ll stick with the recordings in future,.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for your wonderful comments. I’m sympathetic, given a world of Regietheater, directors overlaying interpretations on the original. I am sure you don’t need to be reminded: that it’s opera, not the History Channel, and so of course, you roll the dice when you buy your tickets, and as often as not end up with something like your “stupid ballet”. Expecting historical authenticity in an opera is perhaps a bit like expecting musicianship when they sing the American national anthem before the Superbowl (although this year for the first time it will be an opera singer’s interpretation rather than a pop-singer travesty).

      You are in very good company when you speak of sticking to recordings in the future. Brahms spoke of his preference for staying at home with the score, so that he could hear the music done right: as he’d hear it inside his head. And in his era directors hadn’t yet started going off on tangents. I think one great reason for Regietheater is when you don’t have the brilliant voices to pull off what Verdi wrote. I think we’re in luck here in Toronto, with Adrianne Pieczonka & Dimitri Pittas. I am a junkie for live performance, no matter what they’re doing on the stage i must hear the live music.

  4. Pingback: COC Ballo voices | barczablog

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