Last night, I took in the last performance of the Washington National Opera’s season-opener, Un ballo in maschera, by Verdi. I’ve always put Ballo in the same category as Il Trovatore, a musically infectious work with a silly libretto. But I came to respect the work, and its libretto by Antonio Somma (after Scribe), a lot more after seeing this version.
The production is returned to Verdi’s original conception, set in Sweden, with the main tenor playing Gustavo III, a fun-loving, benevolent king, rather than Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston (in the compromise version which Verdi produced under the duress of censorship). The general sense is that by transferring the action to Boston, Verdi simply changed a few names. But while the music remained intact, it simply makes a lot more sense as a reflection of ideas about kingship than it does as an “American” opera with a governor beset by treasonous colonists. There is a remarkable amount of substance transferred intact from Scribe to Somma, especially when it comes to analyzing why a king may be beloved in some circles and loathed in others, esteemed for both generosity and recklessness at the same time. Verdi’s suggests the fluidity of the king’s reputation in the opening chorus, in which the animated figures of the conspirators and the flowing, tender lines of the king’s supporters are passed back and forth, rather than bluntly integrated, reminding us that a king willing to break his own laws, even in the name of kindness, may be willing to break other laws for more malevolent purposes.
There is one musical moment, in particular, when you are thankful to have Ballo transported back to a royal, European court. Near the end of Act I, Scene I, a sailor whose loyalty to the king has been rewarded with a promotion, bursts into the general tumult to lead a chorus of praise to Gustavo. The melodic line is, as the Verdi scholar Julian Budden points out, basically the same as the line which the king sings upon being confronted with a fatal prophecy. Thus the praise of the people is directly linked to the kings insouciance (and reluctance to confront reality). The chorus, however, is also rather grand, far too grand and high toned for colonists praising their governor. It requires the elevated status of a king to make musical sense.
The sailor who leads the chorus, sung in this performance by Aleksey Bogdanov, was singled out for praise by my colleague Anne Midgette, in her September 13 review of the opera for The Washington Post. It was a parenthetical plaudit for a minor character. But Bogdanov made a similarly powerful impression on me as well. He has stage presence, a fine, and nicely produced, well-supported voice that held up to the challenges of singing in a large, crowd scene. And he made the sailor, in this version called Christian (Silvano in the Boston version) a genuine character, albeit a small one. It’s rare that a singer stands out with this much clarity in such a negligible part. So here’s hoping he returns in a larger one.