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October 17, 2005

Un ballo in maschera

Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) is perhaps the most insistently tuneful of Giuseppe Verdi's thirty operas. Written in 1859, it is the last opera that Verdi would write in a traditional style, with numerous free-standing arias. There is a lighthearted feel to it that would not reappear in Verdi's work until the composer's last opera, Falstaff, in 1893 - and then in rather more complex form. I think it's impossible not to like Ballo.

Balls and other entertainments figure in many Verdi operas, and I for one love his party music. It's deeply silly, really, in the way that Rossini's overtures are deeply silly. At least they are to me; a number of my opera-fan friends find it simply boring, because nobody's singing. When, as is more usual, someone is singing, they don't notice in the background. I adore its divinely exuberant nonsense. Can you imagine Verdi doing the polka? No, neither can I. When he writes one, he lets you know exactly what he thinks of such activity.

In Ballo, the party comes at the end. There's the big chorus with which these scenes usually begin, and then some other dances while the conspirators and Renato try to isolate Riccardo. But when the hero and Amelia fall into conversation - he wants to talk about her, she wants to get him to leave while he's still alive - there's a lovely little number in triple time, more minuet than waltz, played by a violin and a bass. It's wistful and archaic and very intimate; the ball seems to have moved elsewhere for the moment. When it comes to its faltering end, Riccardo does not have much time left here below.

As is usually the case in a Verdi opera, we have lovers who cannot be together. In this case, that's because one of them, Amelia, is married to the other's - Riccardo's - most trusted minister. It is also the case that one of the lovers is a royal. Originally named "Gustavo," after Gustavus III of Sweden, the hero had his named change when a foiled bomb attack didn't kill its intended victims, Napoléon III or Eugénie, but had a chilling effect on dramas involving the assassination of heads of state. So Ballo was moved to pre-Revolutionary Boston, where as the Earl of Warwick Riccardo served as governor. Recent productions have restored the Swedish setting but left the principal names as altered, and they've also failed to get round one of Riccardo's last lines, "Addio, diletto America!" ("Goodbye, delightful America!")

Technically a three-act opera with several scenes, Ballo has always seemed to me to be a five-act work. The first act is mostly fun, with the ominous background of baritonal grumbling along conspiratorial lines. The second act opens with enormous, stark drama, very suitable to a "witch's cave." Riccardo has dropped in, dressed as a sailor (he sings a jolly barcarolle), to see whether Ulrica's prophecies are harmful and worthy of prosecution. As an enlightened skeptic, he's inclined to let her continue unhindered, even after she foretells his death by the hand of the next man to shake his hand. He laughs this off in a dazzling ensemble piece, "E scherzo od è follia." Whenever Riccardo steps forward, the mood brightens considerably. Then something else happens, in this case Renato's appearance on the scene. Of course Renato immediately shakes hands with his boss.

The third act is ve-ry spoo-ky, and great fun because of it. Amelia has ventured out onto the heath in search of an herb that Ulrica has promised her will, if plucked at midnight, cure her of her passion for the man she cannot love. Instead, she finds Riccardo himself - he overheard her in the previous act. After a slam-bang love duet that provides a minitext on What Opera Is All About, complications set in, and the couple is discovered by Renato. Oh-oh. In the brief fourth act, which takes place chez Renato, Renato joins the conspirators and forces his wife to draw the name of Riccardo's assassin from a vase. Riccardo's secretary, Oscar, shows up with the invitation to a magnificent masked ball. The irony is thick enough to choke the unwary.

The final act opens before the curtain, as it were. Riccardo is alone, but that doesn't stop him from soliloquizing about his plan to send Renato (and Amelia) back to England. In true opera-hero fashion, he sings of this move that he can hardly bring himself to think about, and assures us of his resolution to carry it out. Verdi is the past-master of love denied out of duty. Did I say that the lovers are technically innocent? There was that embrace on the heath, but nothing more. Even so, Amelia's virtue has been compromised in her husband's stern eyes, and his honor can be avenged in only one way. Of course, the minute he stabs Riccardo, he comes to his senses and is horribly sorry. With his dying breath, Riccardo forgives everybody. Once he's dead, Verdi is free to end the opera with crashingly dismal chords.

But musically this opera is - I've already said it ten times - great fun.

Posted by pourover at October 17, 2005 07:32 PM

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