At the War Memorial Opera House, October will begin with a revival of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (a masked ball). Staging will be by Jose Maria Condemi, reconstructing the version last presented in September of 2006. The libretto will be presented in its “uncensored” version.
Those unfamiliar with the background for those scare quotes deserve a bit of explanation. The opera is about the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III in 1792. Antonio Somma’s libretto drew upon Daniel Auber’s opera, Gustave III, ou Le bal masque, composed in 1833 and setting a text by Eugène Scribe. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera on the same topic by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for presentation in 1858 during the pre-Lenten carnival season (a time when going around masked was very popular).
Unfortunately, the idea of seeing a monarch assassinated onstage did not go down well with the authorities in Naples (or, for that matter, Rome). To make matters worse, on January 14, 1858, just as rehearsals in Naples were about to begin, three Italians attempted to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris. As might be guessed, the show never went on in Naples. By 1859 Verdi had decided to include only the masked ball reference from Auber’s title and to change the location to Boston, turning the Swedish king into the British colonial authority of the Earl of Warwick, acting as Governor of Boston. There was also some clever renaming of the rebels plotting the assassination to Tom and Samuel, names probably chosen with Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams in mind (and not for the latter’s beer).
In the coming SFO production all the characters will have their originally intended names restored. The Swedish king will be sung by tenor Ramón Vargas, while Tom and Samuel go back to being the conspiring Counts Horn and Ribbing, two bass roles sung, respectively, by Scott Conner (making his SFO debut) and Christian Van Horn. The king’s trusted secretary, Count Anckarström, will be sung by baritone Thomas Hampson, while soprano Julianna Di Giacomo will make her SFO debut singing the role of Amelia, Anckarström’s wife, who is having an affair with the king. The role critical to the dramatization of the assassination itself is that of the fortune-teller Madam Arvidson, sung by contralto Dolora Zajick; and soprano Heidi Stober will take the role of Oscar, the king’s page. American baritone Brian Mulligan, who gave a memorable performance in the title role of Nixon in China with SFO, will replace Hampson for two performances on October 7 and 22.
Un ballo in maschera will be given seven performances. These will take place at 7:30 p.m. on October 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, and 22, with a 2 p.m. matinee on October 19. Further information may be found at the event page of this production on the SFO Web site. Tickets are priced from $25 to $370 and may be purchased through that same event page. They may also be purchased at the SFO Box Office in the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness Avenue at the northwest corner of Grove Street) or by calling 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It is open for telephone orders only on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Standing Room tickets go on sale for $10 (cash only) at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance.