Regular readers probably know by now that I have kept my personal subscription to the San Francisco Opera, primarily to take advantage of the excellent view it provides me of the orchestra pit. As a result yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for my second “dose” of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (a masked ball). This turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated. So much was going on under the baton of Music Director Nicola Luisotti that I had to keep reminding myself not to neglect looking up at the stage to Jose Maria Condemi’s excellent dramatic interpretation of this opera.
Luisotti is always an attentive conductor, but he really seemed to be on a roll yesterday afternoon. At one point I saw him leafing through the pages of his score, and I realized that he must have been conducting six or seven of those pages with his eyes fully engaged with the stage and his ears aware of every one of his instruments. The result was some of the best balancing between the full force of orchestral forces and a stage filled with both soloists and a large chorus that I have experienced in any opera production.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this prodigious management of large numbers of resources, Luisotti was just as effective in more intimate settings. I was most aware of this in the first scene of the third (and final) act, Count Anckarström’s confrontation with his wife Amelia (Julianna Di Giacomo) over her rendezvous with Gustavus (Ramón Vargas). Anckarström (Thomas Hampson) declares that her death is the only suitable punishment; and she replies with the aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” (I shall die … but one last wish), begging her husband to allow her to bid farewell to their son. For the first time I realized that Verdi had conceived this as a duo for soprano and cello, and it was clear that Luisotti was as attentive to David Kadarauch’s cello work as he was to Di Giacomo’s singing. This was music to validate Verdi’s best skills as a composer, not to mention his appreciation for the talents of his predecessors, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
It is also important to note that, while on opening night I felt that Vargas was the weak link in this eternal triangle, he had improved decidedly over the run of performances for the opera. His tone was decidedly more consistent; and, if his pitch was not entirely on the mark all the time, it was definitely significantly more secure. One result is that he now seemed to be giving as much attention to acting as to singing, allowing for better understanding of his own personal struggle with his difficult situation.
I should point out, however, that the subtitles could have been a bit better in establishing the extent of that situation. In the opening scene just reading Amelia’s name on a guest list is enough to throw Gustavus into an amorous reverie. When Anckarström approaches with news of a conspiracy to assassinate him, Gustavus’ mutters, sotto voce, “Heavens [or words to that effect], her husband!” This never made it into the projected titles, thus removing a significant piece of context from the Act II scene when Anckarström discovers Amelia in Gustavus’ company. For that matter, Gustavus is clearly nervous about Anckarström’s seriousness when they meet in Act I; but the titles conceal the source of his unease.
Anckarström’s discovery in Act II is, of course, the pivot point for the entire narrative. In that respect there is a heavy tone of irony when the conspiratorial counts Horn (Christian Van Horn) and Ribbing (Scott Conner) sing about tragedy turning into farce. This recalls one of the most famous quotations from Karl Marx, the opening sentences of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
This fits in nicely with Verdi’s own political consciousness. Was Verdi aware of Marx? This particular book was first published in 1852 in the United States (but published in German). It thus predates Verdi’s work on Un ballo in maschera and may well have circulated among those occupied with the possible future of Italian unification. Even if librettist Antonio Somma was not as politically active as Verdi, the composer may have suggested this minor portion of the text.
On the other hand the text also highlights the one flaw in the staging. After Oscar (Heidi Stober) defends Madame Arvidson (Dolora Zajick) from the accusations of the Chief Magistrate (A.J. Glueckert), Gustavus decides he will visit the woman himself (in disguise) in the “den” in which she practices her fortune-telling. I have yet to figure out why this “den” came off looking like Downton Abbey (with “guests” arriving on the second floor); but it was a far cry from what one would expect for a gypsy accused of being in league with Satan!