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Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
05 Jan 2011

Un ballo in maschera at its roots

In its production this season of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged the work in its original locale at the royal court of Sweden.

Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

Gustavo: Frank Lopardo; Amelia: Sondra Radvanovsky; Ulrica: Stephanie Blythe; Oscar: Kathleen Kim; Samuel: Craig Irvin; Tom: Sam Handley Silvano: Paul La Rosa. Conductor: Asher Fisch. Director: Renata Scotto. Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. Chorus Master: Donald Nally.

Above: Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago


Stage director Renata Scotto has achieved a believably dignified and fluid progression of scenes leading up to the tragedy of misunderstandings. The role of King Gustavus III of Sweden is taken by Frank Lopardo, while that of Amelia his beloved features soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Baritone Mark Delavan sings Count Anckarström, husband of Amelia as well as close friend of the King. The travesti role of the page Oscar is sung by Kathleen Kim and Mme. Arvidson signaled the debut at Lyric Opera of Stephanie Blythe. Through a sensitive approach to tempos Asher Fisch conducted a meaningful account of one of Verdi’s most lyrical scores.

Ballo_Chicago02.gifMark Delavan as Renato

The principals in the first scene of Act I establish themselves immediately in the movements and dramatic interchange of this production. The ballo of the final scene is, of course, foreshadowed now by means of a list of invited guests for the event of the present evening. As the curtain opens on the reception room of an eighteenth-century court, both supporters and detractors of Gustavus give vent to their feelings. The page Oscar, so often in this work a dramatic hinge, announces the King’s arrival with the famous line, “S’avanza il Re.” [“The King approaches”] In the role of Oscar Ms. Kim moves nimbly and projects her lines with a delighted urgency. The event of this evening’s ballo is now used as a means to stir the King’s emotions in the first of that character’s arias. When Gustavus sees in the list his beloved Amelia’s name, he sings rapturously of expecting her presence that night. Mr. Lopardo’s introductory declamation and performance of “La rivedrà nell’estasi” [“what ecstasy to see her again”] are exemplary: in both parts of the scene he demonstrates an assured skill in legato with effective touches of vocal color on significant phrases, such as “E qui sonar d’amore.” [“and music of love.”] When the petitioners are instructed to leave, Oscar shows in Count Anckarström who now advises the King on matters of the court. As he warns Gustavus of a plot against his life, Anckarström’s lines rise upward with dramatic force. A similar vocal technique is needed in the baritone Anckarström’s first solo piece, “Alla vita che t’arride,” [“To your life so promising”], which occurs before Oscar reenters. It is in such transitional moments that Mr. Delavan’s interpretation falls short. His reach to an upper register becomes noticeably detached from the preceding lines so that dramatic effects do not match his intended goal. The conclusion of this scene, devoted to varying opinions of the fortuneteller Mme. Arvidson, highlights both individual and ensemble work. Once the judge declares that Mme. Arvidson should be banished because of witchcraft, Oscar issues a spirited defense of the woman in that character’s first solo aria, “Volta la terrea” [“the sallow one turned”]. Ms. Kim tosses off this piece with secure vocal agility, while she acts out the noted appeal of the sorceress with movement and dramatic gesture. Gustavus resolves to visit her hovel despite the protestations of individual courtiers, the plan for this adventure being affirmed in a rousing conclusion.

Ballo_Chicago03.gifFrank Lopardo as Gustavo and Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica

The second scene of the act introduces both the characters Mme. Arvidson and Amelia. In her interpretation of the fortuneteller Ms. Blythe uses all facets of her rich vocal range. Her hushed, piano intonations in the first part of her incantation to Lucifer are followed by excitingly ringing top notes, while she signals her enhanced communication with the forces beyond. As she concludes with a thrilling and extended chest note on “Silenzio!”, Ms. Blythe’s disheveled persona looks truly possessed. She prophesies riches and rank for the sailor Cristiano, who is convincingly sung and acted in this production by Paul La Rosa. After he is sent off — the entire scene being observed from a distance by the disguised King Gustavus — Amelia enters and solicits the intercession for her part of Mme. Arvidson. She begs for a solution to her emotional attraction to Gustavus, which has distracted her from duty. Mme. Arvidson tells her to pick at night a magic herb growing at an isolated gallows outside the city. Even in this relatively brief exchange Ms. Radvanovsky communicates in her liquid vocal lines a sense of urgency, hinting at her extended prayer in the subsequent act. The trio which now follows indeed features her first prayer to God, while Mme. Arvidson encourages her daring to find the herb and Gustavus, still unseen, simultaneously promises to follow. [“Consentimi, o Signore” (“Grant to me, o Lord”)]. Here Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice soars in her appeals for help, such that she effectively binds the trio into a crescendo of determination. In the final part of the scene following Amelia’s departure Gustavus emerges and demands that the fortuneteller predict his future. When Mme. Arvidson sees the sign of death in his palm, the reaction “Presto morrai” [“Soon you will die”] is delivered by Ms. Blythe with chilling certainty in her intonation. Gustavus laughs off the divination and clasps the hand of Anckarström, hence sealing the prediction that he will die by the hand of the next person whom he thus greets.

In the constellation of beloved and spouse which makes up the shorter second act of Un ballo the emotions and conflicts introduced earlier develop into a turning point for the principals. After appropriately fast and bright tempi under Fisch’s direction, Amelia enters at the isolated gallows while snow falls. As she reaches for the herb, she recoils in fear, which Radvanovsky emphasizes with a distinct intonation on “terrore.” In her following aria, “Ma dall’irido stelo” [“But when from the dry stem”], she sings with great pathos, her tone moving from lament to self-encouragement and ending in the touching prayer for divine support. Throughout the aria, and notably in the final ascent and following “Miserere,” Radvanovsky exhibits the ideal Verdian soprano range, assured middle and upper registers bound seamlessly with admirable breath control. When Gustavus enters and declares “Teco io sto” [“I am here with you”], the subsequent duet allows both to admit their love. At first Amelia protests that the King should leave her, a line that Radvanovsky sings with telling diminuendo on “Mi lasciate.” During the well-known scene Lopardo’s voice blooms in lyrical abandon as Gustavus is transported by the assurance of Amelia’s love. Lopardo’s tasteful performance of top notes in the duet is matched by Radvanovsky’s line as the two singers blend vocally toward each other. Soon after the declaration of love a warning alerts the King of Cout Anckarström’s approach. Gustavus entrusts the veiled Amelia to Anckarström and asks his friend to accompany the unnamed woman back to the court. Although Anckarström had come to warn the King of a plot against his life, loyalties soon shift: Amelia’s veil drops when she tries to protect her husband and the latter perceives his wife’s emotional betrayal. In the final ensemble, at which the Count is mocked by the courtiers returning to court, Amelia’s final notes, as here performed, give expression to her sense of an undeniable love with a tragic outcome.

Ballo_Chicago05.gifSondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo

In Act III the Count gives vent to his anger as the two arias of the first scene reflect on the couple’s marriage. When the Count threatens to have Amelia killed, she begs for the opportunity to see her child one last time. Radvanovsky’s approach to the aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” [“I shall die, but first in mercy”], evinces a number of vocal touches that blend ideally with the orchestra to express her character’s suffering. Once she leaves, the Count sings of his own anguish and the betrayal he feels at the King’s behavior. In Delavan’s approach to “Eri tu” [“It was you”] an admirable sense of legato is marred by an attack stronger than necessary at the beginning of lines. The conspirators now enter and the Count throws in his lot with them against the King. When Amelia returns, she is forced to choose the name of the one privileged to slay the King. As the scene ends with the Count’s name selected and the venue of the ball announced, the vocal ensemble rises in excitement to the fateful evening.

In the final scene before the ball, when the Count indeed shoots the King fatally, Gustavus performs his last aria alone, while musing on his devotion for Amelia yet his resolve to send the couple away from court. As his voice moves here through successive phrases with an exquisite sense of line, Lopardo echoes the love expressed in his earlier scenes but now with an appropriate foreboding on “del nostro amor” [“of our love”]. His inevitable death at the hands of the Count is accompanied by a moving declaration of Amelia’s innocence, her own voice then rising expressively in horror at the turn of events.

Salvatore Calomino

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