Unmasking Il Ballo

ItalyItaly  Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera in concert form. Chorus and Orchestra and Children’s Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale of Santa Cecilia. Chorus Master, Ciro Visco. With the State Police Band. Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 08.06.2013 (JB)


Riccardo, Governor of Boston -Francesco Meli
Renato, his Secretary -Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Amelia, Renato’s wife -Liudmyla Monastyrska
Ulrica, a fortune-teller – Dolora Zajick
Oscar, Riccardo’s Page -Laura Giordano

A crude synthesis of Verdi magic:
1. In the beginning is the melody.
2. The melody soars heights or plumbs depths to create characters.
3. At some point early, the melody or its relation, twists, twirls or intensifies, to create plot.

This “anatomy” is, of course, an oversimplification of the composer’s genius. Nevertheless, its validity is perhaps nowhere more neatly illustrated than in the freshest of Verdi’s operas, Un Ballo in Maschera.

Everyone in Ballo is playing games, with the exception of Ulrica, whose predictions are in deadly earnest. Verdi’s playfulness was never more to the fore. The plot is based on the historic assassination of Gustav 111 of Sweden at a ball. For reasons of censorship, the location had to be hastily changed to Boston, Massachusetts and Gustav became Riccardo, Governor of Boston; Renato, his Secretary is cuckolded by his wife, Amelia, who is in love with Riccardo. Ulrica correctly intuits this mess, while Oscar, Riccardo’s Page, stirs things up with remarkable wit. You can see at once the operatic possibilities in all this. And Verdi delivers magnificently on all of them. (I shall use the Italian names throughout, though outside Italy, the opera is sometimes performed with the Swedish names.)

Everything evolves round Riccardo. Like the historic Gustav, Riccardo is something of the innocent fool. One wants to say more sinned against than sinned, but Gustav / Riccardo is no Lear. His downfall is blatantly his own doing, though he is the last man to understand this. The purity of voice of Carlo Bergonzi was unsurpassed in this role. But Francesco Meli captures perfectly the demanding nuances which Verdi hands him. The Meli voice is powerful, and he is generous with that power, with all the necessary technique to support it. His ringing, clear tones almost obliterated the poor Page, Oscar, in their opening exchange. But there are meltingly beautiful tones in the Meli delivery too, whenever they are appropriate. And that is often. His pianissimi are powerful also, though, of course, of a different kind of power. And all solidly backed by enviable technique. The opera is quintessentially Riccardo’s evening. And Francesco Meli’s performance confirmed that. Every moment was perfectly nuanced from the mock-joviality which follows Ulrica’s fortune telling to the profoundly troubled passion in his great duet with Amelia. The real-life Gustav was homosexual and given to affectations of manner. Verdi seems to have incorporated some of this artifice in drawing his character.

All the same, four other parts are perfectly drawn by Verdi (point 2 above) and should command our attention. Opera Houses have often run out of money when they come to cast the Fortune Teller. How many times have we had to suffer a second-rate mezzo-soprano! The lady has her one brief scene at the end of Act one. But Santa Cecilia pulled out all the stops by flying over Dolora Zajick from America. Her rich contralto tones brought almost earthquake horror to her incantations. Dramatic conviction doesn’t come better than this. I once heard Shirley Verrett in this role –arguably more nuanced in certain details of the text. But Dolora Zajick is worthy to stand beside her. Her darker contralto voice strikes terror in her listeners. That was surely Verdi’s intention.

Oscar can easily steal the show in Ballo. Those two ariettas are enchanting. And Laura Giordano doesn’t lack enchantment. Her agilità was accurate too. She is light of foot and voice. And Pappano is a considerate accompanist. Yet to my ear, something was missing. Her idea of mischief was a little strained: Oscar lo sa, ma nul’ dirà. If only she could have relaxed into the mischief, made it her own instead of “acting” it, she would have been an ideal Oscar.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sounds as though he has sung Renato a few times too many. His vocal delivery has all the right dramatic colours for every scene and is beautifully focused. Yet for all the authority he brings to a role he clearly understands, he sounded somewhat routine in places. And Verdi, in his ideal interpreters, never sounds routine. But I want to record that the audience were not in agreement with me on this perhaps harsh observation.

Liudmyla Monastyrska has not yet made the role of Amelia hers. She pulls all the right dramatic punches. And Verdi hands her a good many of them. This is a genuinely powerful voice. It couples well with Meli for that reason. But Amelia’s doubts and uncertainties evade her. She has not yet grasped that the Verdi pianissimi call for more, not less power. She would also benefit from listening attentively to Maria Irsara’s cor-anglais plaintive tones which turn her great second act aria into such a moving duet.

Antonio Pappano’s pacing was perfect as always. His choice of tempi always have the story-telling in mind. On the surface, the story is simplicity itself, but it is also subtly coloured, sometimes in unexpected ways. And Pappano can be relied upon never miss the essential subtleties. Nothing comes pre-packaged in Verdi. That couples well with the Pappano baton.

Jack Buckley