Lyric Opera of Chicago, A Masked Ball Review – Verdi’s Opera of Love, Betrayal and Murder

The experience of attending the Lyric Opera of Chicago performance of A Masked Ball  by Giuseppe Verdi , was greatly enhanced for me courtesy of Lyric Opera of  Chicago.  First, I listened to commentary by Nicholas Ivor Martin, Director of Operations on the website, (clicking on the opera and then clicking on audio), attended the free pre-opera lecture at which Carl Grapentine offered commentary along with selected segments from the opera and finally, read Jack Zimmerman’s article Swedish Royals, Italian Censors and Giuseppe Verdi: The Story of Un ballo in maschera in the “opera notes” section of the Lyric Opera of Chicago program.

Act One-in Ulrica's den,Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe)

By the time the opera began, I had heard segments of A Masked Ball sung by Maria Callas online, arias on CD by Luciano Pavoratti and Marian Anderson played by Carl Grapentine (the host of the Morning Program on WFMT/ 98.7 FM) among others and gained insight regarding the real life Swedish count upon which this opera is based from Jack Zimmerman’s article.

Declaring their love, Amelia(Sondra Radvanovsky) and Riccardo (Frank Lopardo)

At the opera, all senses alerted. A Masked Ball was powerful, beautiful, magical, and as a gentleman sitting near me at the opera said, “This is real opera”.  Carl Grapentine explained how the opera came to be and what is required of an opera company to make it work. He began by saying that he was continuing on from his discussion of Macbeth a few weeks earlier because Verdi was working on an opera about King Lear (Shakespeare) but needed to complete an opera quickly, and there was not time to complete King Lear and it was never finished.  Instead, Verdi redirected his efforts.

Act Two - Renato discovers that it is his wife, Amelia, who was with the king

The story of A Masked Ball began on March 16, 1792 when a Swedish count shot the king of Sweden during a masked ball at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House. Gustavus III survived the gunshot, but his wound became infected and he died 13 days later.  The event inspired several operas and when Verdi needing a finished opera quickly, he added his music to an intact libretto for an existing opera.  In Lyric's production, the libretto is by Antonio Somma after Eugene Scribe’s libretto for Daniel Francois Auber’s Gustave III, ou le bal masqueGiuseppe Verdi gave the world his take on Gustavus III’s assassination with Un ballo in maschera — A Masked Ball, which opened in Rome on February 17, 1859.  It has captivated audiences since its premiere with its compelling drama and thrilling music.  Since its first performance at Lyric in 1955, it has been performed ten times.
Following Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore, and La traviata (both 1853),  Verdi’s A Masked Ball is the product of his fertile middle period, when one could say he “got his act together”. On its way to becoming the Un ballo in maschera which we know today, Verdi's opera (and his libretto) was forced to undergo a series of transformations, caused by a combination of censorship regulations in both Naples and Rome, as well as the political situation in France in January 1858. Currently, it has all the elements one associates with grand opera including beautiful emotional arias, rousing ensembles, and tortured characters that deal with love, betrayal, and murder while voices and orchestra tell their stories with exquisite musical blends.
Stage direction by Renata Scotto, Amelia in Lyric’s 1980 production of “Ballo” lent strength to the story. As Carl Grapentine pointed out "Ballo" has five great singing roles with a cast to do them justice.

King Gustavus III of Sweden (Riccardo)-(Frank Lopardo)

King Gustavus III of Sweden or Riccardo  ( Frank Lopardo)  is a generous, enlightened ruler but faces the ominous threat of conspiracy – or so his most trusted friend Count Anckarström or Renato            ( Mark Delavan)  warns him. The King has a tendency to shrug off warnings believing the love of his people will protect him.
Early on, a chorus of army officers, noblemen, and delegates of the people (among whom he is beloved) sing to their king:
Happy dreams to our lord and protector
Restful sleep may bring peace from your woes.
All your subjects stand firmly behind you
in their love, you may safely repose.
As the opera opens the invitation to the King’s masked ball is presented  to the King for approval by his page, Oscar ( Kathleen Kim).  The King, foolhardy fellow that he is, and Amelia ( Sondra Radvanovsky), the wife of his best friend and confidant Renato, are very much in love, much to Amelia’s consternation.  In an attempt to put an end to this problematic situation Amelia visits the fortune-teller, Mme. Arvidson or Ulrica ( Stephanie Blythe) and is told that she can help herself by taking a special herb.  When Amelia is visiting Ulrica the king arrives and Ulrica tells him that the next person to shake his hand will kill him and also to be wary of conspirators. He shrugs off her words and mocks Ulrica (not a good idea). 

Riccardo (Frank Lopardo) offers money to Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe)

Ulrica sends Amelia in pursuit of a magic herb to cleanse her heart and alleviate her burning passion for Gustavo. When Amelia follows these instructions and she is alone and beginning to dig, the king who followed her in disguise makes himself known to her. They confess their love for one another but agree the situation is problematic. The music here is  beautiful and poignant. The conspirators appear and in the confusion, Count Anckarström discovers that his wife, Amelia, and the King have been alone together. He turns into the King’s bitter enemy and the ringleader of the conspiracy. Consumed by jealousy, Count Anckarström stalks his prey as the opera’s climactic ending scene at the King's masked ball plays out.
From beginning to end, I was struck by the blend of voices, with one another, and with the orchestra.  The music was beautiful throughout, and compelling.  As I listened to each of these five voices, I could not decide which I thought was best - all of them were wonderful.  However, Stephanie Blythe , making her Lyric debut, as Ulrica was as haunting in her performance as was the short part we heard sung by Marian Anderson.
Reigning Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia was so convincing in her anguish, it almost brought tears.  Frank Lopardo as Riccardo brought to the role the strong conflict between love and duty and he was clearly a tortured soul, as was Mark Delavan passionately displaying fury and cruelty as jealousy and a sense of derision consume him.  Kathleen Kim's Oscar brought lightness and laughter to break up the otherwise heavy emotions.

Act Three- the masked ball begins

I was also very intrigued by the performers at the ball.  August Tye, Choreographer and Ballet Mistress, created a performance wherein Harlequin, Pulcinella, and Colombina reflect the triangle of the King, the Count and Amelia.

Act Three - after the king has been shot

The contributions of costume designer, John Conklin, Lighting Designer, Christine Binder and chorus master, Donald Nally, and stage manager, John W. Coleman should be noted.

Act Three, the king is dead

Three plus hours passed in a flash.  See it while it is here and then puzzle with me about Oscar, the page who looked so convincingly like a young boy and projected an exquisite voice that was anything but that expected of such a young looking person.
Sunday- November 21, [email protected] 2:00 PM,
Wednesday-November 24, 2010 @7:30 PM,
Saturday- November 27, [email protected]:30 PM,
Tuesday-November 30, [email protected]:30 PM,
Saturday-December 4, [email protected]:30 PM,
Friday-December 10, [email protected]:00 PM
Approximate Running Time: 3 hours, 14 minutes
In Italian with projected English translations
Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N. Wacker
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 332-2244

Photos:  Dan Rest

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