The San Carlo Theatre in Naples offered a captivating performance of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, co-produced by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Malmö Opera. Directed by Leo Muscato, and revived here by Alessandra De Angelis, it proposed a reading of the first version of the libretto, based on the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden in 1972, during a masked ball in Stockholm.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> by San Carlo Theatre © Francesco Squeglia
Un ballo in maschera by San Carlo Theatre
© Francesco Squeglia

This opera was scheduled to be performed in Naples in 1858 but after an attempt on Napoleon III’s life, the Bourbon censorship decided to forbid a play where a king was murdered on stage. It premiered in Rome the following year instead, with the action moved to Boston, with King Gustav renamed Count Riccardo, a Governor of the British colony. After 160 years, Ballo is still a masterpiece which delights Verdi’s admirers regardless of the text – and subtext – staged. Many parts of this opera are among the composer’s finest creations, musically and dramatically stunning.

Muscato did a good job, not trying anything bold nor showing us anything incongruous: one of the assets of the production was how it provided dramatic consistency to the work. Federica Parolini’s sets and Silvia Aymonino’s costumes perfectly evoked the late 18th-century setting.

The cast was excellent. For Amelia, Verdi wrote some of the most poignant melodies he ever handed to a soprano, and Carmen Giannattasio, making her role debut, exploited all of the possibilities. She was noteworthy for her stage presence and remarkable vocal power, giving her character a sound and lovely voice. Amelia’s Act 2 aria “Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa” was sung with amazing shades of tone, all the many high notes perfectly in tune and memorable.

<i>Un ballo in maschera</i> by San Carlo Theatre © Francesco Squeglia
Un ballo in maschera by San Carlo Theatre
© Francesco Squeglia

Roberto Aronica delivered a very strong performance. He has the right voice for Gustavo and his acting improved as the evening went on. His voice was sustained by a confident technique and a fine sounding tone. His Act 3 aria “Ma se m’è forza perderti” was sung with deep, passionate poignancy. His duets with Giannattasio were remarkable. Luca Salsi’s performance as Anckarström was also excellent. He brought solidity and depth to the part, with a well-balanced and sound timbre. His Act 3 aria “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima”, was sung with intensity and expressivity.

Agostina Smimmero, as Madame Arvidson, sang with a finely modulated mezzo voice, evoking the devils’ power for her incantations in “Re dell’abisso”. Smimmero was well suited to the role, as she delivered a convincing performance, with a dark timbre which she used smartly to depict the necromancer.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was Anna Maria Sarra, who acted and sang page Oscar intelligently – cheerfully, but without exaggeration, singing beautifully in a near-perfect performance. Sarra owns a bright soprano, confidently fizzing as she jumped up and down the stage while projecting her voice with lightness and energy.

Laurence Meikle in the role of Count Horn showed what a fine singer he is. With his dark, resonant bass he reached terrific results. His co-conspirator, Count Ribbing, played by Cristian Saitta, also performed his role convincingly. Nicola Ebau put in a solid performance in the role of Cristiano.

Luca Salsi, Roberto Aronica and Carmen Giannattasio © Francesco Squeglia
Luca Salsi, Roberto Aronica and Carmen Giannattasio
© Francesco Squeglia

Donato Renzetti's conducting capitalised Verdi’s spirit so much as to make him stand out as the best performer of the evening: the singers masterfully handled the finesses of Verdi’s enchanting phrasing mainly because he showed them the route. The balance between the dynamics in the orchestra and the cast was perfect. The San Carlo' chorus, under the direction of Gea Garatti Ansini, was excellent, especially during the masked ball scene.

*****