Last night at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the first of seven performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (a masked ball). This revival production was staged by Jose Maria Condemi, SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted, and the extensive choral work was prepared by SFO Chorus Director Ian Robertson. While this opera tends not to be numbered among the “Verdi warhorses,” it is, in many respects, one of his more sophisticated efforts.
When I wrote my preview piece about this production, I described the opera as Verdi’s “most politically sensitive” work. This position was certainly reinforced by the major essay by William Berger for the program book. However, while the basic narrative is about the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, Antonio Somma’s libretto is rather spare when it comes to setting the historical context. Instead, the narrative comes down to a monarch being assassinated as a result of an attempted dalliance (never consummated) with the wife of his most trusted counselor. As might be guessed, political authorities in Italy did not take kindly to enacting the assassination of a monarch, particularly since three Italians attempted to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris around the time that rehearsals for Un ballo in maschera were getting under way.
If the narrative of Somma’s libretto is short on context and motivation, however, it is certainly strong in character, particularly when it comes to Count Anckarström, that trusted counselor who makes the fatal shot in the opera’s final scene, set in the masked ball cited in the title. Somma takes his time in fleshing out Anckarström’s character through his relationship with the other characters. In the first scene of the first act he is the efficient power broker, “talking care of business” while Gustav III burnishes his public profile while privately lusting after a woman known to the audience only as “Amelia.” In the second scene we discover that Amelia is conflicted about this relationship, because it is illicit, while Gustav III seems to dismiss it as casual noblesse oblige. It is only in the second act that the audience discovers that Amelia is Anckarström’s wife (ironically, about the same time that Anckarström learns of Gustav III’s dalliance), thus setting in motion the mechanisms that will culminate in the assassination.
Within this narrative perspective, it was no surprise that last night baritone Thomas Hampson’s portrayal of Anckarström emerged as the strongest character. The intensity of his voice depicted a man who clearly enjoyed his position of power. Indeed, he is almost obsessed with his own power, as we observe in his chilling confrontation with his wife at the beginning of the final act. For her part, soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, making her SFO debut, captured the painful difficulty of Amelia’s position, basically caught between the indomitable wills of both husband and monarch. In this fatal triangle the only weak link was tenor Ramón Vargas as Gustav III, who seemed more focused on his vocal qualities (which certainly had their virtues) while reducing his character to a cardboard stereotype that seemed almost insignificant alongside the tragic situation in the Anckarström family.
Musically, Un ballo in maschera shows Verdi as coming into a more sophisticated command of overall structure than could be found in his earlier works, which often seemed to focus only on appealing melodies. The score for Un ballo in maschera follows that of La traviata by about five years. In his earlier opera (whose opening was not successful but would subsequently become a “greatest hit”) Verdi was just beginning to experiment with approaches to subtlety in expressiveness; but, as we know from the opening Prelude, he could not maintain that subtlety for long, quickly falling back on an oompah accompaniment for a schmaltzy theme.
The Verdi who composed the opening Prelude for Un ballo in maschera, however, is the Verdi who would examine the scores of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as bedtime reading. The “conspirators’ theme” is first introduced as a fugue subject; and the deft contrapuntal interplay of the Prelude glides, almost seamlessly, into much of the choral work in the first act. Furthermore, Verdi engaged some imaginative approaches to instrumentation, often in the service of bringing clarity to the different lines of counterpoint. Yes, there are still plenty of moments of high (if not exaggerated) melodrama in some of his musical passages; but this is a Verdi who is becoming more confident in deploying subtle gestures, appreciating how they will impact the more attentive listeners.
Thus, once again, Luisotti presided over eliciting a compelling account of Verdi’s music. His tempo selections all favored allowing the narrative to advance at a brisk pace, minimizing those occasions that tended to linger too long on a particular moment. His interaction with the vocalists always established the impact of the music, and the balance with the instrumental resources could not be faulted. One could not ask for a more satisfying account of Verdi that explored the virtues of his work beyond those warhorse accomplishments so responsible for his popularity.