Attending a performance of Un ballo in maschera in Stockholm is always an emotional experience; the story is inspired by events which took place in the Royal Swedish Opera theatre. It has been rebuilt since those fateful events, but the crime-scene feeling remains. The original libretto, by Antonio Somma, tells the fictionalized story of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was killed in 1792 by conspirators during a Royal Ball at the Kungliga Operan. Because of restrictions prohibiting the depiction of a King's murder on stage, Verdi moved the action to the British colonies in America. In modern times, however, the "Swedish" version is often shown. Naturally, this is the version preferred in Scandinavian opera houses.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> © Hans Nilsson
Un ballo in maschera
© Hans Nilsson

The Royal Swedish Opera has revived a production by Tobias Theorell, where the sets, by Magdalena Åberg, could be defined as "minimalistic": a forest of lianas served as the King's waiting room, as Ulrica's cave, and, at the end, adorned with giant balloons, as the ballroom. The beautiful period costumes and the masks in the last scene in particular completed an attractive, if not particularly original, production.

Conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi gave an energetic reading of the score, driving the performance with enthusiasm. The details were not always carefully underlined but, overall, the performance of the Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra communicated a true Verdian spirit. The Royal Swedish Opera Chorus was extremely precise and on point, with superb diction and great sound.

The young Italian-American singer Leonardo Capalbo made his debut in the role of Gustav III, which suits his rich, round tenor very well. His middle and lower registers were very powerful and warm, giving depth and intensity to his singing. Capalbo's boyish good looks made him a credible mischievous youngster as he planned the escapade to the fortune teller's cave under disguise, and when he laughed at her gloomy vaticination of his imminent death. His breath control and well-set voice gave life to both a passionate lover and a distressed leader. His delivery may sometimes lack elegance, but it is always honest and enjoyable.

Amelia, his beloved and wife of his best friend, was played by Swedish soprano Emma Vetter. Vetter's voice was not uniform: her middle register was much weaker and shy than her high notes, which floated with much better projection. Vetter's main problem was an unconvincing legato: her phrases did not have a true Verdian breadth; the notes came out very beautiful, but one by one, and the arc of the melody got lost between them. Her best moment was during the love duet in the second act, in which she and Capalbo managed to convey passion and desperation.

Amelia's husband and King Gustav's best friend, "Renato" Anckarström, was Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, a veteran at Kungliga Operan. He sounded a bit weak in the first act, but his performance of the great aria “Eri tu” turned out to be very effective. He demonstrated a solid technique and a heartfelt interpretation, with his stylish mezza-voce.

Sofie Asplund was the page, Oscar. She is a brilliant coloratura soprano who gave a convincing interpretation. The director played on the gender confusion by dressing Oscar up as a woman during the masked ball, which provided an interesting twist. Asplud featured the best Italian pronunciation of the entire production which, together with her vocal agility and pure tone colour, turned her performance into one of the highlights of the evening.

***11