Great moments in opera: Un ballo in maschera

October 10, 2013

Today is Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday. It seems a good opportunity to continue my exploration of his operas.

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) premiered in 1859. The theme, about a plot to assassinate a political leader, troubled the censors and Verdi was obliged to make a number of revisions. The version most frequently performed today is set in a polis that could hardly be of interest to anyone — namely, Boston.

The plot grows out of a love triangle between Amelia, her husband Renato, and the governor of Boston, Riccardo, who is in love with Amelia while also counting Renato among his closest friends. Naturally, the situation is a powder keg, and things go as badly as one would expect. There is a subplot about a fortune teller who foresees Riccardo’s fate; though it seems to add nothing specific to the unfolding of the plot itself, it does cast a fatalistic sheen over all. This was something I noted about La Forza del Destino, Verdi’s next opera, as well, so perhaps it was a preoccupation of his at the time.

In the first Act, Riccardo pays a visit to the fortune teller. While waiting to see her, he sings the lovely aria Di’ tu se fedele (Say whether the sea awaits me faithfully), in which he boasts that nothing can prevent his attaining his heart’s desires. Of course, he is asking for trouble. Here is Placido Domingo at Covent Garden in 1975, with English subtitles:

In Act II, Amelia and Riccardo are discovered in a tryst, and she, facing a death sentence for adultery, sings a passionate lament, Morrò, ma prima in grazia (I shall die – but one last wish), in which she begs to see her son once more. It’s a moving few minutes of beautiful song. Here is Angela Gheorghiu in a concert performance, regrettably without subtitles:

The third and final Act is a tour de force. I could simply point to the entire thing, but let me focus on a few particularly good sections. Amelia’s jilted husband, Renato, has joined a conspiracy to kill Riccardo, and they plan to execute the deed at a masked ball. Here is the scene in which they receive their invitations to the ball; I like the contrast here between the perky page who delivers the invitations, singing with dazzling coloratura, and the ominous ruminations of the plotters. Verdi points up the contrast by having the two moods presented first separately and then in combination. I have set both the start and end points for this clip, but if the end marker should fail (as it is doing for me) the excerpt lasts about 4 minutes:

Adding to the pathos of the situation, we next learn that Riccardo has repented his dalliance with Amelia. In Ma se m’è forza perderti (But if I am forced to lose you) he resolves to send Amelia and Renato away in order to sever the adulterous affair. Here the wonderful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sings the aria in a concert performance from Royal Albert Hall:

The final scene of the opera is the ball itself. Let’s pick it up near the end: Riccardo is dancing with Amelia and tells her of his decision to send her away. As he does so, Renato approaches and stabs him. Riccardo has one of those easily-parodied death scenes in which his perishing is postponed by repeated obligations to fill an opera house with his beautiful voice, but eventually the knife gets the better of him. A brief final chorus brings the opera to a tragic close; the sequence lasts about 7 minutes. Here are Placido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli:

Happy birthday, Joe Green!

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