Charles and I watched another Live from the Met broadcast that was being re-run on PBS after having previously been shown closed-circuit in movie theatres: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, originally performed at the Met on December 8, 2012 in a new production by David Alden that the announcer explained relocated the opera to “a dream vision of early 20th century Scandinavia.” When I heard that I immediately feared the worst: a nonsensical “modern” production along the lines of the Met’s current Traviata and Parsifal, one of those excessive Regietheatre things that cheerily ignores when and where the opera’s creators intended it to take place and substitutes ideas of the director’s own (and ones that often don’t make much — or any — sense to anyone else). Not that Un Ballo in Maschera didn’t raise weird issues of locale even when it was new: Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, had been engaged by the opera company in Naples to do one of Verdi’s long-time dream projects, an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Unfortunately, Verdi had a specific soprano, Maria Piccolomini, in mind for the key female role in Lear — Lear’s daughter, Cordelia — and the Naples opera was unwilling to guarantee that she would be part of the contract. So Verdi and Somma looked for another story and found it in an old play by French author Eugène Scribe had written called Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué, which had already been turned into an opera by French composer Daniel Auber in 1833. It was more or less based on a true story: in 1792, King Gustav III of Sweden had been shot by his political enemies while attending a masked ball. He actually survived for 13 days before expiring. The real Gustav III’s murder was motivated exclusively by politics, but in writing the play Scribe invented two key characters: Count von Anckerström, the king’s principal advisor; and Amélie, Anckerström’s wife. Anckerström is solidly on the king’s side until he learns that the king and Amélie are having an affair, whereupon he joins and, indeed, takes charge of the plot to kill the king for revenge.
Verdi and Somma started work on the project but soon got derailed by the Neapolitan censors, who demanded — as their predecessors in Venice had with Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1851 — that the character of the lecherous king be taken down a few status points. Somma’s new version of the libretto retitled it Un Vendetta in Domino and set the story in the German principality of Pomerania, where Gustav III became the ruling Duke and Anckerström became Renato, his best friend. Unfortunately, a real-life assassination attempt against a ruling monarch — an attack against Emperor Louis Napoleon of France by three Italians on January 14, 1858 — led the Neapolitan censors to demand even further changes. Verdi refused, and the Teatro San Carlo management sued him for breaking his contract (and Verdi countersued), so Verdi presented the opera to Rome and agreed to the further changes demanded by their censors. This involved yet another location change — to, of all places, pre-Revolutionary Boston (marking Ballo as the only opera Verdi ever wrote that takes place in the United States, though there’s also one, the little-known Alzira, that is set in South America), in which the king became the colonial governor Riccardo. While Rigoletto has generally been left where Verdi ultimately put it, in Mantua, Italy (though the Met’s current production moved it to Las Vegas c. 1960 to surprisingly good effect), more recent productions of Ballo (following a precedent begun in Copenhagen in 1935) have sometimes moved the story back to Sweden, turned Riccardo back into King Gustav, and imposed the somewhat awkward-sounding Swedish names on the singers.
David Alden used the Swedish names but placed it in a setting that looks vaguely early 20th century, though since the action hardly ever leaves the palace and gardens of King Gustav there aren’t any cars or other indications of modernity and only the clothes and the metallic walls and office furniture (which in the first act is being shoved around on-stage, an expedient one can forgive a small-budget community theatre but just looks ridiculous and illusion-destroying at a big operation like the Met) give away that whenever this is supposed to be taking place, it isn’t 1792. Fortunately, Alden’s production, while sometimes pointless, is at least not gratuitously offensive or silly like most Regietheatre today; if it doesn’t really add anything to Verdi’s (and Somma’s) story, it at least doesn’t detract much and one can enjoy the opera for what Verdi wrote without being offended by the stage trappings. The story is pretty simple: in Act I, we meet Riccardo/Gustav (Marcello Álvarez) planning his upcoming masked ball and reviewing the list of guests; he sees Amelia’s (Sondra Radvanovsky) name on the list and immediately starts singing of how much he loves her and how much joy he’s going to derive from her presence even though she’s married to his best friend and the two of them have had a son (whom we never see but who becomes an important, though offstage, presence in the last act). The king/duke/governor or whatever he is gets a complaint about a fortune-teller, Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe), who’s working outside the palace. The king’s head judge wants her operation shut down but Riccardo decides to disguise himself as a sailor and check her out for himself. When a real sailor shows up and Ulrica says he’s soon going to bet a raise and a promotion, Riccardo secretly slips money and a signed order promoting him into his pocket, thereby convincing the crowd that Ulrica is the real deal. Ulrica tells Riccardo he will be killed by a friend, freaking him out, but he laughs it off and “outs” himself to the crowd.
In the second act (though the Met presented the first two acts without intermission, making for a very long 90-minute first act) we finally meet Amelia, looking in the palace garden for an herb Ulrica has told her to find, singing an aria in which she says she loves Riccardo but wishes she didn’t. Then Riccardo himself shows up and they sing a rather edgy duet, “Teco io sto!” Then Anckerström (Dmitri Hvorotovsky) shows up to warn the king that the assassins have traced him to the garden and are about to kill him if he doesn’t exit, pronto. Riccardo gets away but Anckerström is left in the garden with a veiled woman he doesn’t realize is his own wife (yeah, right … ), and when she unveils herself so the assassins will leave her alone, Anckerström finally realizes that his wife and his best friend the king have been having an affair, which causes him to switch sides and first threaten to kill his wife — she talks him out of it in the famous aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” in which she pleads to see their son one last time before she dies — and then join the plot to assassinate the king. Along with two (real-life) figures, Count Von Ribbing and Count Van Horn (who in the American version of the opera became “Sam” and “Tom”!), Renato draws lots to see who’s going to commit the actual murder, and of course Renato gets the nod. Briefed by Riccardo’s page Oscar (a “trouser” role for coloratura soprano, here sung by Kathleen Kim — this seems to have been Verdi following in the footsteps of Mozart after the success of The Marriage of Figaro, whose perky teenage page boy sung by a woman in drag seems to have launched a whole lot of similar characters over the next several generations of opera) what costume Riccardo will be wearing to the costume party (the weakest part of Alden’s direction: he has the walls of the palace close in at oblique angles à la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and totally misses the point that the murder is supposed to take place against a backdrop of empty gaiety), and Renato shoots him. With his dying breaths (for once a character in opera takes less time to expire than his real-life counterpart did!) Riccardo forgives and pardons all the participants in the plot against him, assures Renato that though he wanted to have sex with Renato’s wife they never actually did so, and the opera ends.
The Met’s production suffered from some longueurs, but it was at least well conducted (by the Met’s current music director, Fabio Luisi, who’s developing into a much stronger conductor than the one that plodded through Wagner a few years ago) and decently sung. Marcelo Álvarez is basically a Pavarotti-style tenor (when the Met telecast this opera in 1980 Pavarotti sang Riccardo, beautifully); he isn’t quite as overwhelming either in his charisma or his bulk, but he basically has the same sort of voice and the same approach to the role. Sondra Radvanovsky has been hailed as the greatest currently active Verdi soprano; I don’t think she’s that fabulous (frankly, I think Angela Meade — who took over from an indisposed Radvanovsky in Ernani and inherited that soprano role — is better) but she’s certainly quite good; her voice comes off as a mix between Callas and Leontyne Price and is at least reassuring to those who think Callas’s death and Price’s retirement killed off the true Verdi soprano voice. Dmitri Hvorotovsky wears snow-white hair, apparently in a desperate attempt to keep him from being sexier than the tenor (in the Met’s last Traviata he looked both younger and hotter than the tenor supposedly playing his son!). Stephanie Blythe came across, praise be, as a real contralto instead of the pulled-down mezzo that usually gets plugged into roles like this, though in a weird way it was disappointing to see a white performer as Ulrica — not only because this was the part in which Marian Anderson became the first African-American of either gender to sing at the Met (on January 1, 1955) but because my own view of how to stage Ballo would be to set it in ante-bellum New Orleans (in the pre-Civil War South the idea of a big masked ball would make sense, where it wouldn’t have in Puritan Boston!), to set the scene with Ulrica in Congo Square and pattern her on the legendary Marie Laveau. Kathleen Kim sang her rather silly coloratura part quite well — though I think her makeup people overdid the fake facial hair in a foredoomed attempt to make her look “male” — and overall this Ballo was a reasonably good interpretation of a second-tier Verdi opera, not as much fun as it could have been but also well conducted, well sung, and with a production that didn’t add much to the original but fortunately didn’t get in the way either!