Un Ballo in Maschera

Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Somma, based on Eugene Scribe’s libretto Gustave III
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Luciano Pavarotti Credit: Metropolitan Opera

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, which premièred in Rome in 1859, is based on historical fact. King Gustav III of Sweden was assassinated at a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in 1792.

The Italian censors were not keen on the subject matter and even less so when there was an attempt to kill Napoleon III. Verdi had to change all the names, location and century.

The present production, directed by Piero Faggioni and conducted by James Levine, dates from 1991 and feels like it. Luciano Pavarotti is Riccardo, the king, Aprile Millo is Amelia, the woman he loves, and Leo Nucci is Renalto, Amelia’s husband and Riccardo’s best friend.

Danger lurks everywhere. Renalto warns Riccardo there is a conspiracy to murder him; but he doesn’t take the threat seriously. He visits Ulrica, a fortune-teller (Florence Quivar), who confirms the assassin will be his best friend and Riccardo’s reaction is to laugh it off.

The fortune-teller’s surgery looks all wrong, very stagy and very old-fashioned. It belongs to another era and another place, when the opera was set in Boston, USA, for instance, and Ulrica and the conspirators were black.

The assassination of Gustav III was purely political. The opera adds a fictional twist. Riccardo’s love for Amelia, and Amelia’s love for him; and though Riccardo freely admits it’s keeping him awake all night, it is a platonic love. When Renalto catches them both in a very compromising situation, he has no doubt that their relationship is adulterous and immediately joins the conspiracy.

The opera stands or falls on the big duet for Riccardo and Amelia, which is played out on a rocky wasteland dominated by a gibbet. Millo and Pavarotti (near to tears) sing with such emotion.

The other high spot, finely sung and acted by Nucci, is Renalto’s grief that he has lost the love of his wife; the accompanying harp and flute make it all the more affecting and real. The king’s bright-eyed page, Oscar (Harolyn Blackwell, constantly smiling), seems to be in a completely different opera to everybody else and her perky behaviour is irritating.

The best melodrama is the scene when three conspirators draw lots to see who will kill the king and Renalto forces Amelia to draw the lot and read the name on it, thus making her an accomplice.

A major disappointment is the masked ball itself. The real Gustav III died in agony from a pistol full of nails. In Fagioni’s production, there is no excitement, no tension, no build-up to the assassination.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($3.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch