Parlando: The COC Blog


10 Things to Know about Verdi's A Masked Ball

By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Coordinator, and Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

A scene from Verdi's A Masked Ball

Need a quick refresher about Verdi's A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera) before you attend your performance? Look no further! Here are the top ten things you need to know about this opera, and our production.

It was the first and only time in Verdi’s career that he adapted an already existing libretto, Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué by Eugène Scribe. Scribe’s libretto had been set to music by French composer Daniel Auber in 1833 and enjoyed great success at its premiere in Paris.

The libretto was based on the 1792 assassination of the progressive and widely adored King Gustav III of Sweden. Gustav was shot at a masked ball in Stockholm and died several days later.

As Verdi worked on the opera with his translator and librettist, Antonio Somma, the royal censors in Naples demanded a number of changes. The opera went through three different titles, and just as many historical periods and locations (18th-century Stockholm, 17th-century Pomerania, 14th-century Florence), before ending up at the centre of a legal dispute between Verdi and the management of the Teatro San Carlo. The courts released Verdi from his contract in Naples, and the composer took his opera to another theatre in Rome. There, the original Swedish setting was also rejected, but Verdi proposed 17th-century Boston as an alternative, with a governor instead of a king, which satisfied all parties involved. It was in this version that A Masked Ball finally premiered in Rome in 1859. The Boston setting was the standard version throughout Europe in Verdi's life-time, though within two years of the opera's premiere, a production in Paris had set the action in Italy.

The opera's genesis shows that what was critical for Verdi in Masked Ball was not so much the outer detail — a particular city or a nobleman's rank — but the universal structures that govern our most private and public relationships.

A Masked Ball marked Verdi’s move away from melodrama toward subjects of greater emotional complexity. The characters here are multi-faceted, experiencing intense conflicts of the heart and mind. The Governor Riccardo is in love with his best friend’s wife, Amelia, but realizes that unchecked ardour would only compromise her marriage and lead to misery. Similarly, Amelia feels real passion for Riccardo but can’t bring herself to betray her husband Renato. Meanwhile Renato – probably the most complex baritone part Verdi ever wrote – is devastated when he discovers what appears to be an affair between Amelia and Riccardo, the man he has sworn to protect with his life against a brewing conspiracy. Remarkably, Renato never turns into a one-dimensional villain and Verdi gives him a broad spectrum of conflicting emotions, from vengeful bloodlust, to grief at the breakdown of his marriage, and from pain at being betrayed to sorrow at the loss of a friend he loved and admired.

This opera is Verdi’s most successful fusion of light and dark styles. The commingling of tragedy and comedy is most striking during the opera’s final scene when the stage band at the masked ball, apparently unaware that the Governor has been shot, continues to play upbeat dance music while Riccardo succumbs to his wounds.

In composing to a French libretto, Verdi opted to use musical forms associated with 19th-century French opera. This is especially true of the music he wrote for the page Oscar, who often sings in straight-forward French couplets (two-versed songs) that lighten the mood with fun and mischief. The part of Oscar is traditionally performed as a pants role (a male character played by a female singer), but in this production Oscar’s character is presented as a young woman.

This production takes place in an America of the 50s and 60s, but makes references to symbols and iconography outside that epoch – for example the extravagant outfit Oscar wears to the masked ball is a theatrical wink citing Björk’s “swan dress” at the 2001 Oscars. In drawing from a broad spectrum of real and mythic American tropes, this production presents a completely invented “modern America,” reinforcing Verdi’s artistic recommendation that “to copy reality can be a good thing, but to invent reality is much, much better.”

The set is a hotel ballroom that can transform seamlessly into different locales of the opera. During Act II, for example, when Amelia is in a cemetery by the gallows, the lighting dims, the columns of the ballroom suddenly become transparent to reveal vine-like plants crawling upward, and chandeliers lower to create the illusion of treetops that rustle and sway in the wind. The single set complements the action of A Masked Ball, one of Verdi’s most compact and propulsive operas.

Two-time winners of the “Directorial Team of the Year” recognition (2002 and 2012), selected by an international panel of 50 critics contributing to the magazine Opernwelt, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have also been the recipients of “Der Faust” – a major German theatre award – for best opera staging (2006 and 2012). They are renowned for immersing themselves deeply in the score and following the nexus of text and music to arrive at their production’s aesthetic and thematic focus. When Jossi Wieler was recently appointed head of the Stuttgart Opera, the Financial Times noted that it meant a welcome return to “productions based firmly on score and text” and praised him and Morabito for their “unshakeable faith in the score.” When it premiered in 2008, this production of A Masked Ball was hailed by Bloomberg for being “unashamedly entertaining” and having the “cinematic dynamism and the velocity of a good thriller.”

A Masked Ball runs from February 2 to February 22 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. To learn more and to purchase tickets, click here.

Photos: (top) Catherine Naglestad as Amelia and Piotr Beczala as Riccardo in the Berlin Staatsoper production of Un ballo in maschera, 2008. Photo by Ruth Walz; (middle) (l – r) Catherine Naglestad as Amelia, Piotr Beczala as Riccardo, Dalibor Jenis as Renato, Anna Prohaska as Oscar, Oliver Zwarg as Samuel and Andreas Bauer as Tom in the Berlin Staatsoper production of Un ballo in maschera, 2008. Photo by Ruth Walz; (bottom) Sergio Morabito. Photo by A.T. Schaefer & Jossi Wieler Photo by Martin Sigmund.

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Inside Opera: Behind the scenes of Così fan tutte

For the past six months, the production department of the Canadian Opera Company has been buzzing in anticipation of our brand new production of Così fan tutte and, step-by-step we were there! Watch our three Inside Opera videos and go behind-the-scenes as we bring this new production of Mozart's wry comedy to life. Learn about the creation of the crisp prep school-inspired costumes, the gorgeous cotton-candy blue ship-wigs, the creation of our curio cabinet and, finally, watch it all come together with the music during rehearsal!

Inside Opera: Constructing Così Part One

Our first video features a visit with Costume Supervisor Sandra Corazza to see the school uniforms and fencing outfits.

Inside Opera: Constructing Così Part Two

Our second video catches the creation of the imposing curio cabinet with Head Scenic Artist Rick Gordon, and our cotton-candy blue wigs with Wig and Make-up Supervisor Sharon Ryman.

Inside Opera: Rehearsing Mozart's School for Lovers

Our third and final Così video focuses on the music and the staging, as we chat with director Atom Egoyan, conductor Johannes Debus, and watch rehearsals with Sir Thomas Allen, Tracy Dahl, Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire.

For more behind-the-scenes looks at Così fan tutte, watch the Toronto Star's video series about the creation of the opera.

Cosi fan tutte runs until February 21, 2014. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Photo: Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso in a screenshot from Inside Opera: Rehearsing Mozart's School for Lovers. Video by Darren Bryant

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A Musical Lifetime with Così: Sir Thomas Allen

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Tracy Dahl as Despina and Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso

In an age in which superlatives such as “unforgettable,” “legendary” and “greatest” are thrown about indiscriminately, few would argue Sir Thomas Allen’s status as the pre-eminent lyric baritone of his generation. He has earned this title most especially for his iconic interpretations of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Figaro, Papageno, Guglielmo and Don Alfonso, both onstage and in the recording studio. Following his appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sir Peter Hall’s legendary production, EMI recorded his Don Giovanni in 1984 – now considered the definitive account of Mozart’s notorious womanizer. For close to four decades he has been the baritone of choice for star conductors such as James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Georg Solti, John Eliot Gardiner, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. Allen has not only mastered the fine balance between singing and acting needed to be a great opera singer, but stands as a master interpreter of the art song, especially in the English and French repertoire. He now passes on his expertise to the next generation of artists, giving masterclasses worldwide including, since 1996, at his own Samling Academy, located in Allen’s beloved native country in North East England.

Sir Thomas Allen’s association with Mozart’s Così fan tutte goes as far back as his student days in the 1960s when he came to the attention of the great British vocal pedagogue, James Lockhart. “One of the things I worked on with him was how to go through a score. He taught me how to do that and read it as a singer, prepare and pencil it up and do the things that all singers do. And the score chosen was Così, though I didn’t learn the role [Guglielmo] at the time, maybe just one of the arias perhaps. After that he [Lockhart] became music director at Welsh National Opera and one of the first things I did with them was a touring version of Così. That goes back to 1970 or something like that.” Allen’s first Così role, Guglielmo, is often regarded as a rite of passage for the budding lyric baritone. “I think the reason why we as a breed feel that way is that it doesn’t seem to have the emotional maturity of a role like that of Ferrando [with whom Guglielmo schemes to prove the infidelity of their respective fiancées]. The relationship Guglielmo enjoys with Dorabella is one of pure pleasure rather than the [more emotionally deep] way Ferrando latches onto Fiordiligi. Musically as well, of all the Così roles, Guglielmo is the one that tends most towards the buffo [comic].” The other three young leads sing some of the most sublime, grand and emotional music Mozart ever wrote but Guglielmo’s “vocal opportunities are just not on the same level.”

Don Alfonso costume sketches by Debra Hansen

On the other hand, Allen relishes the entirely different demands made of Don Alfonso, Così’s philosopher and cynic, and the role which brings him to the COC this winter. He draws some fascinating parallels between Alfonso and Don Giovanni, the Mozart role with which he has the closest association. “It’s a strange thing about Mozart. If one looks at Don Giovanni musically, he isn’t all that demanding – it’s an endurance test and you have to sing very loudly at the end of the piece. But you’ve not been asked great musical questions during the course of it in the way Donna Anna has, or had to sing the long-breath lines that Don Ottavio has. And similarly, Don Alfonso doesn’t have those great [vocal] demands made of him. The thing is to use those moments when you’ve seemingly not been asked to do much… when in fact you are actually doing a lot. Then it’s a question of listening to what others are doing, and causing action and reaction in them by just being there; by setting a plan in motion, sowing a seed of doubt or whatever it might be. A lot of it is just sitting down, crossing your legs comfortably, having a cup of coffee whilst you’re watching everything going on. That’s the way it often pans out. I have no qualms about that – I don’t crave great lengthy stentorian arias – I’m very happy to just pull the strings and watch the others dance to my tune!”

Having mastered Così’s two low-voiced male roles, Allen has taken the next logical step and can now be found directing Mozart’s effervescent comedy in addition to Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute for companies such as Scottish Opera, Arizona Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. For the latter he not only directed Così but simultaneously played Don Alfonso, an undertaking which required “eyes in the back of your head. It’s not easy, but not impossible either.” In Boston he opted to perform the opera in English, wanting the text to have an immediate impact on the audience. For Allen, communication through music – its actual sounds, pitches and dynamics – are definitely the singer’s responsibility, but even more important is the performer’s ability to personally connect to the text and enliven it for the audience. By using an English translation for his Boston Così, he wished the singers to experience the words first, rather than second-hand. “Using one’s own language is a distinct advantage. I don’t care how seriously and intensely you work with a second or third language – there’s nothing like getting back to one’s own – it’s in your DNA. Also, the colours that become available to a singer for expression are that much more telling. It’s a much more advanced process when you’re learning a role that’s not your native language.” That, says Allen, is “a lifetime study. I’m still doing it.”

Just as director Atom Egoyan will re-envision Mozart’s “school for lovers” for our audiences, Allen will also be looking at it afresh. “The main thing is not to come with anything assumed. Listen to what [the director] gives you and then respond to that rather than relying on the process you’ve used for years and years. I keep on saying this to singers – listen to what you’re hearing and respond to that, not to the thing you’ve learned like a parrot from several recordings.” Having lived with Così for over 40 years, Allen has witnessed a huge sea change in attitude with respect to the piece. There might have been a time when critical opinion denigrated the opera for its perceived immorality and frivolity, but in a post-Freudian world fascinating avenues have opened up to explore the “lessons of love” which lie beneath its undeniably frothy exterior. As Allen reasons, “It’s no longer possible to regard these characters simplistically, as no more than decorative 18th-century porcelain figurines.” This is especially true of the opera’s ambiguous ending – do the original couples “kiss and make up,” returning to their original partners, or are their relationships damaged forever? Allen feels the answer is found in Mozart’s score itself: “You start thinking surely [the two couples] can’t just return to everyday life as a result of the lessons that have been learned. In a way, Mozart indicates this in the finale which is in the very basic key of C major. It’s music that’s so simplistic, almost as though he’s deliberately trying to show us that [the wedding between the two “original” couples] is a façade – they’re clearly going through the motions here – it’s very superficial when you think of all the glorious music that went before.” How will things end up for the lovers in Toronto this winter? Allen and his fellow cast members will no doubt have fun playing with the possibilities when they meet on stage for the COC’s new production of Così.

Photos: (top) Tracy Dahl as Despina and Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper; (middle) Sir Thomas Allen. Photo by Sussie Ahlburg; (middle) Preliminary costume sketches for Don Alfonso for the COC's new production of Così fan tutte, by set and costume designer Debra Hanson; (bottom) Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso (at right) with the COC Chorus in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. Photo by Chris Hutcheson.

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001