The plot of Un ballo in maschera is based on the true story of Gustav III, King of Sweden, who was killed during a masked ball at the Royal Opera, in Stockholm, in 1792. In the libretto, the political conspiracy at the origin of the murder is spiced up by jealousy: the king is in love with his best friend’s wife, and, despite the platonic nature of this love, when the husband finds out he joins the conspirators and becomes the assassin.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> © Marcus Lieberenz (2016)
Un ballo in maschera
© Marcus Lieberenz (2016)

The opera was commissioned by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1859. The Neapolitan censorship did not take lightly the representation of regicide on stage and changed the story so much that Verdi cancelled the contract and the theatre sued him. In the end the opera premiered in Rome, after moving the action to the British colonies (Boston) and turning the king into an earl.

Deutsche Oper Berlin presents the Swedish version of the opera, reviving a 26-year-old successful production by Götz Friedrich. The performers are in a mixture of modern and 18th-century clothes (costumes by Isabel Ines Glathar), while the staging is very simple and based on large splashes of white, black and red.

This revival relied on a solid cast, perhaps not the most exciting voices around, but very committed and detailed in their interpretation. Generally speaking, the Personenregie was excellent, all the singers managed to enliven their characters, making the drama come alive. Dmytro Popov replaced the indisposed Piotr Beczała as King Gustav. His tenor was easy in the high register and pleasant, lacking perhaps some projection and nuance. The character has a funny side, which Verdi accentuates with playful music; Popov clearly enjoyed this aspect of King Gustav, and played into it with gusto.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> © Marcus Lieberenz (2016)
Un ballo in maschera
© Marcus Lieberenz (2016)

Amelia, the king’s sweetheart, was Irina Churilova; her soprano was secure and strong, with a beautiful legato. Her high notes were at times a bit too metallic for my taste; the best part of her voice was in the middle, where it took a fruity, rich quality. Accordingly, her highlight was her second aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”, which sits in a slightly lower tessitura, and gave her an opportunity to shine and show true emotional involvement.

Thomas Lehman was Count Anckarström, Amelia’s husband. His baritone was perhaps a bit generic, but he really came through during his big aria “Eri tu”, managing to convey all the desperation of the loving, betrayed husband. At the end of the opera, when he realised that Amelia and the king were innocent, and he had murdered his best friend and beloved monarch for nothing, Lehman managed, in the middle of the concertato, to make his despair shine through the ensemble.

In the second scene, Gustavo and his courtiers visit the witch, Madame Arvidson, who divines the king’s murder by the hand of his friend. This was one of the most visually successful scenes of the whole evening: Arvidson and her acolytes stand in some sort of glass cases, a greenish light coming from below, creating a spooky atmosphere. Judit Kutasi was brilliant with a naturally low mezzo-soprano, no discernible passaggio between the deep low register and beautiful, full and round high notes.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> © Marcus Lieberenz (2016)
Un ballo in maschera
© Marcus Lieberenz (2016)

The playfulness of the king is reflected in his favourite page, Oscar, a classic coloratura soprano breeches role sung by Meechot Marrero. She was very credible as the young page, her silvery bright voice aided by a perfect physique du role. In the two minor roles of the main conspirators, Timothy Newton and Patrick Guetti really made an impression, with their precise and stylish bass. In the second act (the cemetery) Verdi writes two ensembles, both very rhythmic and in need of precise, crisp sillabato: the trio “Odi tu come sonano cupi”, sung by Gustavo, Amelia and Renato, and the ensemble “Ve’ se di notte”, by Counts Ribbing and Horn and the chorus of conspirators. The difference was noticeable: the trio, despite the beautiful voices of the three main characters, was a bit muffled and not very precise, while the following ensemble, led by Newton and Guetti, was exact and exciting, to the last laughs from the back stage, perfectly a tempo.

The chorus of the Deutsche Oper had some unfortunate episodes of lagging behind the orchestra, conducted by Ivan Repušić, at the beginning of the masked ball scene, but it was the protagonist of the most exciting moment of the whole evening. The final concertato, after the King was struck, was absolutely fantastic. The entrance of the female chorus in the softest, sweetest tone ever imaginable was followed by a judicious crescendo, which bloomed in a controlled explosion, topped by the most beautiful high note Churilova managed to sing all night. It was glorious.

***11