Un ballo in maschera
Opera Santa Barbara, 2007
Originally published 12:00 p.m., March 1, 2007
Updated 05:11 p.m., March 5, 2007
Opera Santa Barbara presents Verdi’s A Masked Ball
By Charles Donelan
The Opera Festival continues this week with A Masked Ball, considered to be one of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpieces and contains some of his most elegant and powerful romantic duets. Yefim Maizel returns to Santa Barbara to direct A Masked Ball. In his previous engagements here, Maizel has directed Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor. Maizel spoke with me last week about the upcoming show.
What went through your mind as you studied Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball] in preparation for this production?
I was driven by a desire to get at the composer’s intention. Originally, Verdi was writing about the recent assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, which had taken place at a masquerade ball. Because of censorship in Italy, the setting was changed to Boston, and the character’s role was shifted from king to governor. I have updated the setting from colonial times to the Victorian era in pursuit of a stronger connection with Verdi’s original impulse, which was to dramatize the assassination of a national leader.
How much did Verdi know about colonial Boston?
(Laughs) It’s likely Verdi had little idea of what colonial Massachusetts was like, or of what had gone on there. But that was not the point. He was asked to move the story out of Europe, and he did. Some contemporary productions even revert to the Swedish setting. I chose to leave the action in Boston, but to move the time to the late 19th century because I saw this change as irresistible. It does so much for the story.
Could you describe what you mean by that?
The two operas in the festival are being presented within a proscenium frame that is the same for both. This put tremendous pressure on the people doing the costumes and lighting to find ways to differentiate them. With Rigoletto in traditional costume, I wanted the Masked Ball costumes to look distinctive and modern. At first I actually proposed a film noir setting in the 1940s to the opera board, but the Victorian era is what we decided on in the end. It allows the manners and etiquette to be much more modern and closer to the way they are now. There are no court intrigues or powdered wigs to distract the audience from what is relevant and passionate in the action.
When you choose a design, where does your inspiration come from?
Always from the music — that’s how it has to be. You are working on finding a truthful way to visualize what is already there in the score.
How do you feel about these characters?
I like Riccardo, the governor of Boston. Where the duke in Rigoletto is a flashy Don Juan type, the governor is a fuller human being, someone with a spiritual side. That’s where the excitement in this role comes from for the tenor — in the conflict between the physical and the spiritual.
What about the masked ball itself? How are you approaching the finale?
There are disguises in use throughout the opera — Amelia in her veil, the fisherman’s outfits the men use to visit the fortuneteller, Ulrica — and there is also the theme of hidden feelings, which can be even more disruptive than hidden identities. The governor must hide his feelings for his friend’s wife, and yet what he doesn’t know is the conspirators around him who are pretending to be his friends are also hiding their feelings from him. So the finale is very much in keeping with what has come before. When the characters put on their masks, that’s when the real facts of the matter come out. Of course, the final truth is death, as the governor learns to his distress.
Thanks so much for speaking with me. I look forward to the production.
Thank you; it was my pleasure.