Outstanding concert version of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Un ballo in maschera (concert version): Soloists, Chorus and Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 25.6.2022. (JLZ)

Un ballo in maschera with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, chorus and soloists © Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo – Francesco Meli
Amelia – Joyce El-Khoury
Renato – Luca Salsi
Ulrica – Yulia Matochkina
Oscar – Damiana Mizzi
Samuel -Alfred Walker
Tom – Kevin Short
Silvano – Ricardo José Rivera
Judge – Lunga Eric Hallam
Servant to Amelia – Aaron Short

To conclude the 2021–2022 season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra programmed several concert performances of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, conducted by Riccardo Muti. The concert version provides an opportunity to hear the details of the score more clearly than is sometimes possible with staged productions when the orchestra is in the pit. For this festival-like evening, the CSO gave a polished reading, the timbres and voicings rendered with the brilliant lucidity one associates with them. The overture itself set the tone, as in the delineated contrapuntal lines in the low strings near the beginning of the piece to articulate fugato-like passages. At other times, the winds and brass had a chance to be heard while rarely overpowering the soloists. The chorus was in a seating area above the rear of the stage, and one was able to hear them distinctly.

The soloists were well-chosen. Tenor Francesco Meli gave a vigorous interpretation of the ill-fated Riccardo with a voice that has the clarion quality to ring through the heights of the hall. As his beloved Amelia, Joyce El-Khoury had a solid performance, especially in her thoughtful reading of ‘Mezzanotte!’ in Act II. That familiar aria brings out the trepidation of Amelia and benefits from the kind of sensitive treatment El-Khoury gave to it.

As Renato, Amelia’s husband, Luca Salsi drew on his experience with the role. Some pitch problems in the first act might have been linked to the positioning of the singers and orchestra, but it was resolved in Act II, and Salsi brought out the emotional and musical core of ‘Eri tu’ with style. In responding to his perceived betrayal, Renato bears in mind his love for his wife, and Verdi’s setting of the text brings the character’s dilemma to life in the hands of a baritone like Salsi. Damiana Mizzi as Oscar gave a stunning execution of the virtuosic numbers in Act I, showing her technical facility and bright sound. Her intensity was constant throughout the concert, but the Act III exchange with Renato, ‘Saper vorreste’, was particularly effective.

The role of the mystic Ulrica came into sharp focus with Yulia Matochkina, who sang with commanding intensity and consummate musicianship. Matochkina’s textured voice made Ulrica emerge with striking presence. Her voice was both strong and supple, and the audience showed its appreciation for Matochkina’s effort with spontaneous and well-deserved applause. It was a pleasure to hear this talented singer make her Chicago debut with such a moving performance.

The chorus gave full voice to the exuberant numbers that characterize Act I, and their intensity did not abate in the ball scene that concludes the opera. Supporting Samuel and Tom, performed by Alfred Walker and Kevin Short respectively, the men of the chorus depicted the other conspirators with vocal acuity and brought appropriate deftness to the scene in which their machinations were thwarted. The instrumental-like approach here to the detached line emphasized the text. In fact, the full chorus gave similar attention to the tragic ending in the final scene as they utter the last expressions of horror at the dénouement of Un ballo in maschera.

This was definitely one of the highlights of the current season, and the Chicago Symphony made an extraordinary effort to meet the challenges of mounting a complete opera in concert. It was sufficiently vivid to beg the question of visual cues that could add nuances, like positioning the principals closer together for duets and other ensembles. One of the important props in Act II is the veil alluded to in the text, which allows the audience to see as well as hear the moment when Amelia reveals her identity, causing Renato to join the conspirators instead of protecting Riccardo from them. There was a full printed libretto in Italian and English which was useful for the audience, whose rapt attention stood out.

Muti’s spirited reading of the music builds a case for featuring this important score more frequently.

James L. Zychowicz

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