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The opera of Paris presents Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, in 2007 staging by Gilbert Deflo
In 1792 Gustave III, King of Sweden, was assassinated during a masked ball at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, in a plan hatched by an aristocracy unwilling to lose its privileges.
This episode inspired Eugène Scribe, whose opera libretto was then set to music by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber. Gustave III or Le bal masqué was thus created in 1833 in Paris.
It was not until 1859 that Un ballo in maschera, Verdi’s version on a libretto by Antonio Somma (adapted after Scribe’s original libretto), was created in Rome. Rejected repeatedly by the censorship of the theatre San Carlo of Naples, the opera was finally given in Rome, in a version stripped of any political references and with a protagonist who from King of Sweden became Duke of Pomerania, then governor of Boston.
A world of contrasts
Director Gilbert Deflo chooses to transpose the action in the 19th century and emphasizes the opposition between wisdom and ethics on the one hand and superstition and irrationality on the other.
Black and white colours alternate or complement each other in the different scenes: a white eagle sits high in front of a hemicycle and a marble monument delimits the world of reason and power from that of beliefs and magic, represented by a place of worship framed by snake-shaped columns and animated by fire and trance dances.
The striking decorations created by William Orlandi plunge us into a grim and timeless atmosphere. Love, hope and life have no place here, the veil of pessimism and disenchantment spreads over every moment, from Riccardo and Amelia’s love confession, under the eyes of two deadly ravens, to the ball, which is supposed to be joyful but ends up like a wake.
A static stage direction counterbalanced by vocal excellence
The little cheerfulness and carefreeness found in the opera are brought by Oscar’s character, who represents Riccardo’s double, that part of his personality that he is obliged to suppress.
Nina Minasyan offers us an effective interpretation and is capable of animating a static stage direction. This dynamism can also be found from the vocal point of view: her coloratura voice floats brightly and clearly, light and supple, as the other characters are not allowed to be.
Varduhi Abrahamyan embodies an imposing and evocative Ulrica, whose freedom sets her apart from the other characters, stuck up in their roles of unflinching leader, faithful friend and devoted wife. Too bad that her dark and touching voice is sometimes covered by the orchestra.
If Piero Pretti offers us a Riccardo with a clear and lyrical timbre and a precise and controlled emission, Simone Piazzola’s Renato is less convincing at first but gets better and better, while Mikhail Timoshenko’s Silvano shows assertiveness and vocal control.
And then appears the sublime Sondra Radvanovsky. She embodies with deep refinement the character of Amelia and her voice overwhelms the audience with its splendid balance between energy and drama on one side and sweetness and humanity on the other.
Torn between marital duty and a devouring passion for Riccardo, Amelia honestly shows us her strength and frailty. One admires the vulnerability of her pianissimi which, in crescendo, evolve towards powerful and expressive forti.
Under the baton of Bertrand de Billy, Verdi’s writing is rich in contrasts, dramatic and subtle at the same time, the conductor emphasizes its fluidity in moving from solos to duets and choral parts.
We finally notice the beautiful costumes by William Orlandi, from Ulrica’s red dress in opposition to the monochrome scenery, to the white clothes of his acolytes in contrast with their dark skin. Let us recall in particular those of the ball, between the overwhelmed Harlequin, the desolate Pierrot and the morbid white masks, highlighting the ambiguity of this festive moment.