Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is a story where everyone knows what will happen, but no one can stop it. A brash and naïve king called Gustavo visits a fortune teller, who predicts his assassination at the hands of a friend. Though courtiers conspire against him, Gustavo is confident that he is protected by the love of his subjects and by his loyal advisor, Count Anckarström. After a misunderstanding regarding that same advisor’s wife, however, the fortune-teller’s prediction comes to pass.
Un Ballo in Maschera is based on the real assassination of the Swedish King Gustav III, but Verdi’s opera was so thoroughly shredded by censors before the premiere that only the slimmest of stories remains. The political so offset into the personal that Gustav’s real legacy of reform is completely obscured, as is his homosexuality.
Instead, the power of Un Ballo is in its music, which still speaks through the bare-bones plot. Verdi was at the height of his fame when he wrote the opera, and all of his middle-period hallmarks are beautifully represented: the strange balance of tragedy and comedy, his wry and emotive ensemble writing, the spectacular, marathon arias. At the same time, the effect of the censors’ redactions is evident: the story and emotional arc are not as complex as Verdi’s other works.
Gustavo is a king who in some ways refuses to see himself as a king but is also unable to be a regular man. He blithely denies the very real dangers around him—perhaps because of his good-heartedness or because the conspirators who plot his downfall are utter failsons—but he loves his people, without seeming to recognize that they need him alive. He is an unfailingly good character but not always a wise one. There is just enough to sustain an opera, but the material feels stretched thin over its runtime.
David Alden’s production, which opened in 2012 and returns to the Metropolitan Opera this season, is attractive and eye-catching, with its bold black and white contrasts and angular shifting ceilings. The stylized movements of the chorus work especially well in the comedic bits, but the whole thing feels a bit emotionally threadbare.
This is a production that looks good, but doesn’t seem to say all that much. The Jacob Peeter Gowy painting The Fall of Icarus that adorned the scrim and ceiling of Paul Steinberg’s set provided a powerful initial image—Gustavo also flies too close to the sun out of similar youthful folly—but its omnipresence soon robbed the symbol of its power (as did costuming Oscar as Icarus in the ball, which mixed our metaphors a little bit).
With a show like this, everything rests on the playing and singing, and there, this revival delivered far more than expected. Carlo Rizzi, a regular conductor at the Met whose consistently excellent work with bel canto repertoire has not quite netted him the fame he deserves, conducted with propulsive briskness and great attention to his singers, who all shone brightly against such a dynamic backdrop. His orchestra was never obtrusive but always lively, particularly in ensemble scenes: the Act I quintet was especially pleasing.
As for the singing, simply put: this was brilliantly sung. The leading cast displayed exemplary bel canto technique from the first note to the last, and their approach to Verdi’s music elevated even the most bare-bones of dramatic elements.
As Gustavo III, Queens-Native Charles Castronovo delivered a robust but still surprisingly mellow tenor. It’s a powerful and pleasing sound, cutting sharply without taking on brassy nasality. His youthful presence made the naïve king more sympathetic than frustrating, even when his folly began to read more as willful self-destruction. His final scene was especially touching, as his voice took on a boyish sweetness.
Liv Redpath, as Verdi’s only pants-role page Oscar, produced a soft, supple ribbon of sound, warm even in coloratura passages, that unfurled with increasing splendor as the night wore on. Her “Saper vorreste” was sung with charm and ease, and made more impressive given she was being manhandled by Quinn Kelsey’s Count Anckarström for the second verse.
As Ulrica, the unfortunate fortune-teller who predicts Gustavo’s death, mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova channeled raw power that seemed to exceed her frame, imbuing the chesty low notes with presence and strength.
Angela Meade, as the guilt-ridden but glamorous Amelia, was superb. She has a dazzling, full-bodied sound, nicely balanced and perfectly controlled, and navigates the massive range of Amelia’s part with a deft touch. There was more than one breathtaking moment in each of her arias—from acapella pianissimo entrances that emerged with crystalline splendor to waterfalls of sound so forceful that the air shook around her.
But it was Quinn Kelsey as betrayed husband and royal traitor Anckarström, who stole the show in the third act, with his spell-binding “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima.” His warm, emotive voice makes all of his characters feel human and sympathetic, even when they’re plotting regicides, and this evening was no exception: I was nearly pulled out of my seat by the depth of his anguish.
I haven’t heard such consistently solid singing across an entire cast at the Met in a while—recent productions have been marred by intonation problems or bad casting choices, particularly in contemporary works—and the clean, emotive bel canto singing was thoroughly refreshing. It was a welcome reminder that wonderful vocal technique can be an end unto itself.
Un Ballo in Maschera is at the Met Opera through November 18.