Un Ballo in Maschera, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, December 2012

David Alden’s vivid production of Verdi’s Ballo, portrays the main characters Riccardo and Renato in their historical roles as the Swedish king Gustav III and his murderer Anckarström. The assassination took place at a masked ball, and in an account written by a Polish officer who was present, the king received an anonymous warning “N’allez pas au bal ce soir. Il y va de votre vie” (Do not go to the ball this evening. Your life will be lost).

Fortune telling with King in disguise, all images MetOpera/ Ken Howard

Fortune telling with King in disguise, all images MetOpera/ Ken Howard

Captain Anckarström, chosen by the two main conspirators, shot the king in the back at close range with a pistol loaded with rusty nails to encourage gangrene, and the king took thirteen days to die. He forgave the conspirators, but Anckarström was captured, had his gun hand lopped off and was flogged for three days, before being beheaded and quartered.

Scribe wrote a play on the incident, plus an opera libretto for Auber, titled Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué. Verdi wanted to use it for his own opera, but censors and other irritations transferred the action to Boston with a new libretto. Verdi used the invention of a love intrigue between Gustav and Anckarström’s, but in fact Gustav was homosexual, and the assassin nursed a different grievance. But many points of the story, such as the fortune-teller Ulrica Arfvidsson are quite accurate, and the king paid this society medium an incognito visit where she predicted his death by a man in a mask.

King and Amelia

King and Amelia

Verdi’s opera brings into Act I the main characters, Gustavo, Anckarström, Amelia, Ulrica, and the additional role of the page Oscar, and Alden used some of the bouncy music for a song and dance routine, as if this were to be Ballo, the Musical. The bare stage allowed plenty of movement and was very effective for the scene in a wild place outside the city in Act II. This was after the interval, which featured a love-in between the interviewer Deborah Voigt, who looked terrific, and Marcello Alvarez, along with a welcomely assertive Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who commented on the set amplifying the voices, perhaps explaining why the others in Act I seemed a bit strained at times.

Anckarström and Amelia

Anckarström and Amelia

After the first interval the problem was rectified, and as Act II started, Sondra Radvanovsky came through beautifully in her long soliloquy as Amelia. Marcello Alvarez sang Gustavo with a warm passion, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky played Anckarström with just the right feeling, from concern for the king’s safety to horror in finding the veiled woman he accompanies back to the city to be his own wife. With Stephenie Blythe as Ulrica in Act I, and Kathleen Kim as a lively page with a pretty voice, the singing of the cast complemented the orchestra to perfection under sensitive musical direction by Fabio Luisi.

Oscar tends the dying king

Oscar tends the dying king

Verdi’s music for this opera is inspired, and Sondra Radvanovsky’s Morrè, ma prima in grazia (I shall die, but first, in mercy … ) was upliftingly emotional. Her husband’s response was sung with great feeling by Hvorostovsky, as was the monologue by Alvarez, Forse la soglio attinse (Perhaps she reached her home … ) in the next scene, before the stage exploded into action for a dramatic ball scene. Ballo may not one of Verdi’s most famous operas, but don’t miss this in a repeat cinema screening if it’s available.

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