Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” (Un Ballo in Maschera) Next Met Opera Live in HD on Dec. 8

The Met Live in HD Continues to Grow in the Berkshires
by Larry Murray

There will be political intrigue and thwarted romance all up and down the Berkshires this weekend as lovers of both music and theatre turn out to enjoy the classic Verdi opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). The Saturday December 8, 2012 early afternoon live transmission to selected local theatres begins at 12:55 pm and has a running time of approximately 3.5 hours, (204 minutes) including two intermissions. There are behind the scenes interviews and features in addition to the main course.

Opera in the Berkshires of Massachusetts

The popularity of opera in Berkshire County is somewhat surprising, but probably due to the fact that since the demise of the last of the Berkshire Opera Companies there has been little live opera performed here, except at Tanglewood as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra season. But the dozen or so Met “Live in HD” events each year often sell out, especially at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington which pioneered the offering many years ago, and at great financial risk. For The Metropolitan Opera it is an 11 million dollar operation, for local venues, well, it pays for the heat.

Following the first telecasts at the Mahaiwe, the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown also began showing the operas, followed by the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield. Sadly, the Colonial tried unsuccessfully to offer La Scala and Covent Garden telecasts as an alternative, but gave up, probably too soon. Beyond the Beacon, the Little Cinema at the Berkshire Museum seems to be the serious and dedicated outlet for opera and dance in Pittsfield. The smaller venue – actually bigger than most multiplex rooms – does some novel and exciting programming in that area, as well as hosting live plays.

Recently joining these trendy pioneers has been, surprisingly the North Adams MoviePlex. Their sound and projection equipment is state of the art, though their soundproofing was all wrong from the initial construction so sound leaks from one screening room to those next to it. One hopes this enters their consideration when scheduling the various films for the various rooms. But I digress.

The Saturday, December 8 matinee performance of Un Ballo in Maschera will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD telecast series, which is now seen in more than 1,900 movie theaters in 64 countries around the world. The December 8 performance will also be broadcast live over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III in Verdis Un Ballo in Maschera. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken October 31, 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo III in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken October 31, 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

About Un Ballo in Maschera

This is a brand new production of the warhorse opera, staged by acclaimed opera director David Alden and led by Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. It opened on November 8 of this year. It is the first of two new Verdi productions in the current Met season, which includes seven operas by the great composer in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Some of the Met’s leading Verdi stars take on the central roles in the opera’s love triangle: Marcelo Álvarez as the ill-fated King Gustavo III; Dmitri Hvorostovsky as his best friend and eventual rival, Count Anckarström; and Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia, Anckarström’s wife and the object of the king’s secret passion. Kathleen Kim sings the coloratura role of Oscar, Gustavo’s page, and Stephanie Blythe is Mme. Ulrica Arvidsson, a fortune-teller with ominous news for the king.

The Maestro and the Soloists

This production marked Luisi’s first time leading Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met. Later this season, he conducts revivals of Verdi’s Aida and Berlioz’s Les Troyens, as well as three complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In previous Met seasons, he has led performances of Verdi’s Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto, and La Traviata, as well as Puccini’s Turandot, Tosca, and La Bohème; Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena, Elektra, and Ariadne auf Naxos; Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro; Massenet’s Manon; Berg’s Lulu; and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. This season, he also conducts numerous productions at the Zurich Opera, where he is General Music Director: Janáček’s Jenůfa, Tosca, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Bellini’s La Straniera, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Un Ballo in Maschera is Alden’s first complete Met production; in the 1980s, he directed revivals of Berg’s Wozzeck and Beethoven’s Fidelio. His productions have been seen at many of the world’s leading opera houses, including Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Washington National Opera; London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden and English National Opera; and Germany’s Bavarian State Opera, Komische Oper Berlin, and Frankfurt Opera. This season, he also directs Britten’s Billy Budd at English National Opera, Rossini’s Maometto II at Santa Fe Opera, Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bavarian State Opera, Chabrier’s L’Étoile at Frankfurt Opera, Britten’s Peter Grimes at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Canada.

Marcelo Álvarez makes his Met role debut as Gustavo. He has sung the role at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Teatro Real in Madrid, and Deutsche Oper Berlin, and will sing it later this season at La Scala. Gustavo is the fifth Verdi hero Álvarez has sung at the Met, after Alfredo in La Traviata (the role of his debut), the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Manrico in Il Trovatore, and Radamès in Aida. His other recent Met appearances include Cavaradossi in the new production premiere of Tosca, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, the Chevalier des Grieux in Manon, and Rodolfo in La Bohème.

Sondra Radvanovsky is also noted for her Verdi performances at the Met, where her past roles have included the title character in Aida, Leonora in Il Trovatore, Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlo, Elvira in Ernani, Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, the title character in Luisa Miller, and Lina in Stiffelio. Her other Met appearances include the title role in Tosca, Roxane in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. She sang Amelia at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010 and will sing it later this season at Vienna State Opera and La Scala.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky made his Met role debut as Anckarström in the 2007-08 season and sang the role in 2009 at Deutsche Oper Berlin. His Met repertory includes five other Verdi roles: Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, Don Carlo in Ernani, the title character in Simon Boccanegra, Rodrigo in Don Carlo, and di Luna in Il Trovatore. His other Met appearances have included the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, the title role in Don Giovanni, Prince Andrey in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Belcore in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, and Yeletsky in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, the role of his debut.

Kathleen Kim sang her first Met Oscar in the 2007-08 season. Her Met repertory includes Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Chiang Ch’ing in the company premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China, Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Papagena in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the First Sprite in Dvořák’s Rusalka, and Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro. Later this season, she sings Olympia at the Bavarian State Opera.

Dolora Zajick sang her first Met Ulrica in 1995. She made her Met debut as Azucena in Il Trovatore in 1988 and has since sung the role nearly 50 times, including a run of performances this season. Her 216 Met performances include more than 75 as Amneris in Aida, a role she will repeat later this season. She has also been seen at the Met as the Countess in The Queen of Spades, Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Elvira in Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, Ježibaba in Rusalka, Eboli in Don Carlo, and Marfa in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. Later this season, she will sing Adalgisa at Washington National Opera.

Stephanie Blythe made her Met role debut as Ulrica in 2007. This season, she will sing her first Met performances of Azucena in Il Trovatore and reprise her acclaimed portrayal of Fricka in three complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Her diverse Met repertory includes Amneris in Aida; Ježibaba in Rusalka; Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice; Frugola, the Principessa, and Zita in Puccini’s Il Trittico; Eduige in Handel’s Rodelinda; and Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff.

Paul Steinberg frequently designs scenery for opera at many major international houses; his recent credits include Billy Budd at English National Opera, Falstaff at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Welsh National Opera, and Don Giovanni at New York City Opera. Brigitte Reiffenstuel made her Met debut designing costumes for Il Trovatore in 2008. She will return to the Met later this season for David McVicar’s new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Adam Silverman’s recent lighting designs for opera include Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreuer at Covent Garden and three productions for English National Opera: Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Grimes and Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová. Maxine Braham has provided choreography for numerous opera productions, including Peter Grimes at English National Opera, Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, and Otello at Dallas Grand Opera.

The large cast is impressive. Photo by Ken Howard.

The large cast is impressive. Photo by Ken Howard.

Plot Synopsis

When it comes to opera plots, Verdi never kept it simple. In his day keeping up with people’s relations and intrigues was as popular as television and smart phone apps are today. So, the Swedish character names here were the ones intended by Verdi. Because of censorship at the time of the opera’s premiere, he was forced to change the setting and time of the story, as well as the names of the historical figures. The conventional names appear in parentheses.

ACT I. The Royal Palace in Stockholm, 1792. Courtiers await an audience with King Gustavo III (Riccardo), including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing (Tom and Samuel). The king enters. He notices the name of Amelia, wife of his secretary and friend Anckarström (Renato), on the guest list for a masked ball, and thinks about his secret love for her. Left alone with Gustavo, Anckarström warns the king of a conspiracy against him (“Alla vita che t’arride”), but Gustavo ignores the threat. The young page Oscar tells the king about the fortuneteller Ulrica, who has been accused of witchcraft and is to be banished (“Volta la terra”). Deciding to see for himself, the king arranges for his court to pay an incognito visit to Ulrica.

In a warehouse at the port, Ulrica invokes prophetic spirits (“Re dell’abisso”) and tells the sailor Cristiano (Silvano) that he will soon become wealthy and receive a promotion. The king, who has arrived in disguise, slips money and papers into Cristiano’s pockets. When the sailor discovers his good fortune, everybody praises Ulrica’s abilities. Gustavo hides as she sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who is tormented by her love for the king and asks for help. Ulrica tells her that she must gather a magic herb at night by the gallows. When Amelia leaves, Gustavo decides to follow her there. Oscar and members of the court enter, and the king asks Ulrica to read his palm (“Di’ tu se fedele”). She tells him that he will die by the hand of a friend. Gustavo laughs at the prophecy (Quintet: “È scherzo od è follia”) and demands to know the name of the assassin. Ulrica replies that it will be the first person that shakes his hand. When Anckarström rushes in Gustavo clasps his hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Anckarström is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers him as the conspirators grumble about their discontent.

ACT II. Amelia arrives at the gallows and prays that she will be freed of her love for the king (“Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa”). When Gustavo appears, she asks him to leave, but ultimately they admit their love for each other (Duet: “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia”). Amelia hides her face when Anckarström interrupts them, warning the king that assassins are nearby. Gustavo makes Anckarström promise to escort the woman back to the city without lifting her veil, then escapes. Finding Anckarström instead of their intended victim, the conspirators make ironic remarks about his veiled companion. When Amelia realizes that her husband will fight rather than break his promise to Gustavo, she drops her veil to save him. The conspirators are amused and make fun of Anckarström for his embarassing situation. Anckarström, shocked by the king’s betrayal, asks Horn and Ribbing to come to his house the next morning.

ACT III. In his study, Anckarström threatens to kill Amelia. She asks to see their young son before she dies (“Morrò, ma prima in grazia”). After she has left, Anckarström exclaims that is it the king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia (“Eri tu”). Horn and Ribbing arrive, and Anckarström tells them that he will join the conspirators. The men decide to draw lots to determine who will kill the king, and Anckarström forces his wife to choose from the slips of paper. When his own name comes up he is overjoyed. Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball. As the assassins welcome this chance to execute their plan, Amelia decides to warn the king (“Di che fulgor”).

Gustavo, alone in his study, resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Anckarström to Finland (“Ma se m’è forza perderti”). Oscar brings an anonymous letter warning him of the murder plot, but the king refuses to be intimidated and leaves for the masquerade. In the ballroom, Anckarström tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively (“Saper vorreste”) but finally reveals Gustavo’s disguise. Amelia and the king meet, and she repeats her warning. Refusing to leave, he declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her away with her husband. As the lovers say goodbye, Anckarström stabs the king. The dying Gustavo forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Anckarström that his wife is innocent. The crowd praises the king’s goodness and generosity.

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