Verdi: Gustavo III (Un ballo in maschera). © 2022 Dynamic Srl

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A Dark Nordic Kingdom

GIUSEPPE PENNISI listens to Verdi's 'Gustavo III' ('Un ballo in maschera')

'... a good recording to remember a much expected but somewhat disappointing performance.'


As is well known, Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) is an 1859 opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. The text, by Antonio Somma, is based on Eugène Scribe's libretto for Daniel Auber's 1833 five act opera, Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué.

The plot concerns the assassination in 1792 of King Gustav III of Sweden who was shot, as the result of a political conspiracy, while attending a masked ball, dying of his wounds thirteen days later.

It was to take over two years between the commission from Naples, planned for a production there, and its premiere performance at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 17 February 1859. In becoming the Ballo in maschera which we know today, Verdi's opera (and his libretto) underwent a significant series of transformations and title changes, caused by a combination of censorship regulations in both Naples and Rome, as well as by the political situation in France in January 1858 - the attempt to kill the Emperor and the Empress on their way to the opera house. Based on the Scribe libretto and begun as Gustavo III set in Stockholm, it became Una vendetta in domino set in Stettin (Poland), and finally Un ballo in maschera set in Boston during the colonial era. It became one of the most frustrating experiences of Verdi's career. The difficulties with the censorship had to do with staging the murder of a King, not with love or sexual affairs.

As a matter of fact, from the mid-twentieth century, it has become more common for the setting to revert to its original eighteenth-century Stockholm location. Scribe's libretto for Gustave III includes details that could be understood as signs of the king's homosexuality. Verdi and Somma eliminated many of these coded signals, but new codes take their place, particularly relating to the character of Oscar. David Richards has argued that although the opera was no longer explicitly based on Gustav III, Verdi deliberately deviated from his usual practice and set Oscar for a soprano: 'Verdi goes as far as one could go within the repressive conventions of his period to portray Gustavo (based on a widely known flamboyantly homosexual ruler) as either a gay man or, at a minimum, a bisexual man'. Several productions have attempted to draw out this suggestion – most notably the staging by Göran Gentele for the Royal Swedish Opera in 1959 where Gustavo is having an affair with his Oscar even while pining for Amelia, and also the 1993 staging by Götz Friedrich for Berlin and by Calixto Bieito in Barcelona in 2000.

I do not think that Somma and Verdi had any interest in the alleged sexual tendencies of Gustave III, also because at the second act, the opera includes the most sensual and carnal tenor and soprano duet of the Italian melodrama.

Listen — Verdi: Non sai tu che se l'anima mia (Gustavo III Act II)
(CDS793703 CD2 track 2, 3:14-4:09) ℗ 2022 Dynamic Srl :

However, the CD is a live recording of a performance of the Parma Verdi Festival in 2021 where the stage direction (Graham Vick, Jacopo Spirei) played heavily on the King's reported bisexuality. I have not seen the production: it received mixed comments. Thus, I deal only with the musical part as rendered on the CD.

The main feature of Gustavo III / Un ballo in maschera is the skillful use of contrast between moments full of rhythm and apparently quite light tone and others very dramatic.

Listen — Verdi: Seguitemi! (Gustavo III Act II)
(CDS793703 CD2 track 4, 0:00-0:40) ℗ 2022 Dynamic Srl :

Listen — Verdi: Chi voi siate, l'audace parola (Gustavo III Act I)
(CDS793703 CD1 track 14, 0:00-0:44) ℗ 2022 Dynamic Srl :

The balance is quite careful. This is unique in Verdi's operas and, I think, in Italian nineteenth century melodrama. However, it is missing in Roberto Abbado's rendering of the score. Abbado sets Gustavo III / Un ballo in maschera in a dark Nordic kingdom where the light moments almost disappear and the score has a quite monotonous tint.

This has an impact on the singers too. Only Anna Pirozzi, as Amelia, excels: she has a splendid voice and beautiful colors. With a different conductor, she could have shown more details of the character. Piero Pretty is the King: a good performance but without the ringing other tenors in this role have accustomed us to. Amartuvshin Enkhbat is Anckastrom, an effective baritone but not able to enthrall you in his two main arias - Alla vita che t'arride Track 6 CD1 and Eri tu Track 3 CD3.

Listen — Verdi: Alzati. E sei tu che macchiavi quell'anima (Gustavo III Act III)
(CDS793703 CD3 track 3, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2022 Dynamic Srl :

Giuliani Gianfaldoni is not a sufficiently lightweight Oscar and Anna Maria Chiuri a merely professional Ulrica she has sung several times.

In short, this is a good recording to remember a much expected but somewhat disappointing performance. Gustavo III / Un ballo in maschera does not need a dark Nordic kingdom. After all, initially it was commissioned by Naples' San Carlo opera house.

Copyright © 25 November 2022 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy







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