Sometimes, politics can get in the way of art, with interesting results. In 1858, the situation in France was making censors jumpy in both Naples and Rome, causing Verdi to revise his original libretto for Un ballo in maschera before the Roman premiere the next year, and resulting in two extant versions of this celebrated opera:
The ruling bodies were unwilling to let the history of the murder of King Gustav III be played out on stage, concerned it may give the attendees ideas, and leaving Verdi perplexed about how to handle the situation. Finally, the character names were changed and the location was moved from 18th-century Stockholm to 17th-century Boston. While we may now chuckle at the thought of “Count Riccardo of Warwick, Governor of Boston,” the censors finally approved the revised libretto and allowed the opera to open. With this production, SDO has chosen to take the more traditional route, presenting the original historical setting and costumes in Sweden, where King Gustav III meets his demise.
This demanding work has some pitfalls, leaving some of the more intricate components in danger of getting lost: not only can the plot be slow, but the orchestration and vocal ensembles can prove unmanageable. But on Saturday, March 8, San Diego Opera‘s orchestra and cast were in fine form under the baton of Massimo Zanetti, bringing the glory of Verdi’s music to life. The orchestra sounded their absolute best, drawing colors from the harmonies and showing vast dynamic contrast with impeccable precision. Their balance with the singers was faultless, showcasing the soloists and chorus in all of their vocal beauty. While the swelling fortes were lovely, it was the spine-tingling pianissimi delivered by the soloists, chorus and orchestra alike that left the audience in awe. This was particularly true in soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, who caused audience members to hold their breath in moments that seemed gossamer-spun.
Lesley Koenig’s straightforward staging allowed the plot to build its own energy and interest as it progressed, and brought out fine dramatic action from the leads. From his opening scene, Piotr Beczala’s portrayal of Gustav III was passionately dramatic and vocally rewarding. His fluid tenor voice swelled through Verdi’s expansive lines, and brought beauty to ardent moments. Stoyanova’s Amelia, his love interest, brought sparkling color to the show and blended beautifully in the duets.
Baritone Aris Argiris brought vocal power and credible jealousy to this triangle as Amelia’s husband, Count Anckarstrom, who was turned from best ally into murderer by his wife’s love for Gustav.
But the evening belonged, dramatically and vocally, to Stephanie Blythe, as Madame Arvidson (aka Ulrica). Her sound permeated the hall with unmatched color and power, and her characterization of the fortune teller was dramatic and foreboding. Blythe seemed to bring all of her intense vocal power to its zenith in this role.
The rest of the cast brought color, balance and vibrancy to the show. The disciplined chorus, under the direction of Charles Prestinari, provided wonderful color and precision to Verdi’s engaging score, with impressive dynamic range.
A Masked Ball plays at the Civic Theatre in San Diego for three more performances through March 16.
Be sure to make time to see this riveting production.
Disclosure: Natalie Mann is a former member of the San Diego Opera Chorus, but is busy with other projects this season.
Remaining performances are the 11th, 14th and 16th, and tickets range $45-280. The website includes an excellent Your Experience section, including directions by car, trolley, Amtrak and more, plus restaurant and hotel information and quite a bit more. Don’t let the short distance from Los Angeles hold you back — take a trip south, and make it an event!
Whew — Giuseppe looks a little tired all of a sudden! Sometimes the real drama is behind the scenes. Read more about the opera’s development and the surrounding politics in the article on Un ballo in maschera from Wikipedia.
You might also check out this live recording from the Met, chronicling Marian Anderson‘s groundbreaking appearance as Ulrica. The two-CD set is a re-release of the 1955 live broadcast.
Another side of Stephanie Blythe:
Last year’s As Long as There are Songs is the mezzo’s first pop(ish) release, with favorite songs from the Great American Songbook. Grab your copy fast, as they tend to sell out, or download the MP3 to your favorite device.