By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
Of Verdi’s middle-period operas, A Masked Ball (1859) is one of the few not to undergo extensive revisions following its initial run of performances. In contrast, Simon Boccanegra (1857/1881), La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862/1869) and Don Carlos (1867/1884) were significantly reworked after they premiered, and today are most often presented in their later versions, which means that different stages of Verdi’s artistic development co-exist side by side in those works, sometimes juxtaposed all too obviously.
A Masked Ball, on the other hand, was composed relatively quickly. And for all of its variety of musical styles, it is an opera that moves forward in a user-friendly, easy-to-follow single span (compare that with the confusing, sudden chronological leaps one finds in Simon Boccanegra).
A Masked Ball is unique within Verdi’s operas for the degree to which it relies on humour and lightness – both in situation and in its musical forms. We hear these elements mainly in the songs Verdi wrote for Riccardo and Oscar – and we can literally call them songs rather than the traditional Italian operatic term arias. When the King dresses up as a fisherman to visit the fortune-teller Ulrica, he sings a canzone (song) with a decidedly popular, waltz-like rhythm. Likewise, Oscar’s two “arias” are labeled ballata (ballad) and canzone and share the two-verse structure we associate with the song form rather than the more developed, complex structure Verdi would use in a full-blown aria.
The almost wholesale adaptation of A Masked Ball's Italian libretto from the existing French libretto for Daniel Auber’s 1833 opera Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué at least partially explains Verdi’s use of these lighter musical forms. In the 19th-century French opera tradition, it was common to find more popular two-verse couplets (i.e. song in which all verses are sung to the same music) very similar to the canzone favoured for Oscar. Given that the operas’ two librettos run almost parallel – number by number and line by line – and that the later piece is most often a direct translation into Italian from the French, it’s not surprising Verdi opted to try out musical forms more associated with French opera. Verdi peppers humour and lightness throughout the score: Oscar’s quicksilver contributions; Riccardo’s carefree, tripping, dance-inspired rhythms; the conspirators Sam and Tom literally “ha-ha-ing” their way into the distance at the end of Act II – these elements are brilliantly melded with traditional narrative and thematic materials (love story and heavy melodrama) to make A Masked Ball the most surprising of Verdi’s mature operas.
Musical Excerpt #1
Act I, introduzione, ensemble: “Signori: oggi d’Ulrica all magion v’invito” (“Gentlemen, today I invite you to the dwelling of Ulrica”)
Connection to the Story
Riccardo has been asked to sign a banishment order for the fortune-teller, Ulrica. Oscar defends the supposed prophetess, and Riccardo, as a lark, suggests that the whole retinue visit her in disguise.
This ensemble is part of a larger integrated musical section Verdi designated as the opera’s introduzione (introduction), comprised of a chorus, three arias (Riccardo’s sortita or entrance aria; Renato’s cantabile or song-like aria and, Oscar’s ballata or ballad). The main melody at 00:48 starting at “Ogni cura” (“every care”) has a very “Offenbachian” quality as characterized by its skipping rhythms which require the singer to be nimble in his text delivery, and to keep the mood light and fun. French composer Jacques Offenbach was the premier composer of operetta (light, frothy, comic musical theatre pieces) during the 19th century, and his confections were performed all over Europe. It’s not surprising to detect Offenbach’s influence on A Masked Ball given that its libretto was directly based on Auber’s French precedent (see Introduction above). Listen to the main theme’s reprise at 2:18, when the tempo accelerates, and the dance rhythms seem to owe much to the famous can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld!
Musical Excerpt #2
Act II, duet: “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia il rimorso dilacera e rode…” (“Do you not see that if remorse corrodes and cuts my soul…”)
Connection to the Story
Riccardo joins Amelia for a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of the city. After declaring his love, he forces her to admit that she too loves him.
This grand love duet, one of the most technically challenging and musically complex in all of Verdi’s operas, features a different type of vocal writing and characterization from what we find in Musical Excerpt #1. The bright, almost comical mood created there by the quick rhythms and catchy tunes is replaced here by long-lined, sweeping melodies which serve to express Riccardo and Amelia’s tormented passion for each other. The role of Riccardo is often compared to the Duke of Mantua, a tenor part from Verdi’s great opera Rigoletto (you’ve surely heard the Duke’s famous aria, “Le donna è mobile,” sung here by Spaniard Plácido Domingo). Riccardo and the Duke both share light-hearted elements musically speaking, yet the vocal line Riccardo sings in this duet sets him apart from the Duke’s libertinism and marks him as a noble character. He genuinely cares for Amelia and knows that, because she is married, it is wrong for him to be in love with her. The sheer variety of his music makes Riccardo one of Verdi’s most complex tenor roles.
The climax of the duet is its slow middle section in which Riccardo beseeches his beloved: “M’ami Amelia” (“Love me Amelia” – listen at 2:44) and then she, knowing she risks losing both her life and family if she reciprocates, replies, “Me difendi dal mio cor!” (“Defend me from my heart” – 3:11). After this slow section, the cabaletta (generally the quicker, more rhythmic musical response to a slower movement, beginning here at 4:19) is broken into three verses, one for Amelia, then Riccardo and then both together (at 6:44).
Musical Excerpt #3
Act II, aria: “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima” (“It was you who besmirched that soul”)
Connection to the Story
Believing that his wife Amelia has been unfaithful to him with Riccardo, Renato decides to kill his former friend. His emotional reaction is multi-faceted, however, as he also laments the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of an important friend.
This is the most complex and elaborate aria Verdi ever wrote for the baritone voice and remains the most famous musical number from the opera. Verdi was almost single-handedly responsible for creating a new type of baritone – now unsurprisingly labeled the “Verdi baritone” – who could manage the high-lying tessitura (where the music lies in a singer’s range) of an aria like this one, and emit the kind of rich, warm timbre required to fill out its long-breathed phrases. To this day, the Verdi baritone is one of the rarest voice types; it’s extremely difficult to find singers who can meet the demands of this type of vocal writing.
“Eri tu” has a two-part structure: in the opening section, Renato addresses a portrait of Riccardo, not only angry because of the affair he suspects Riccardo had with his wife Amelia, but because he laments the loss of a trusted friend whom he admires. The second, less overtly dramatic section, called the cantabile (song-like piece), begins with the passage “O dolcezze perdute, o memorie” (“O lost sweets; O memories” – listen at 1:06). Here, the spinning melody which movingly conveys Renato’s grief and disillusionment is supported by an appropriately light, arpeggiated (broken chord) harp accompaniment.
Musical Excerpt #4
Act III, aria: “Saper vorreste di che si veste” (“You would like to know what he’s wearing”)
Connection to the Story
At the ball, the conspirators are worried that Riccardo could have discovered their plot and stayed away. Unwittingly, Oscar acts as their accomplice: he thinks Renato wishes to play a joke on his friend, and after some hesitation, he reveals Riccardo’s disguise.
The role of Oscar comes out of the well-established tradition of pants roles (male characters sung by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos) stretching back to Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and going forward to Richard Strauss’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (1911). The high tessitura of Oscar’s vocal line signifies his youthfulness, joy, and uninhibited emotion. Oscar’s high spirits in this little aria add sparkle and form a contrast to the grim conspiracy that underlies the glamour of the masked ball. Listen as the cheeky page taunts the men who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination with his “tra la las” at 00:25.
Oscar’s music is based on French musical models (see also Excerpt #1). “Saper vorreste” is a straight-forward French couplet (two-versed song), a relatively simple musical form appropriate for a servant character. Contrast this with Verdi’s music for the more socially exalted Riccardo and Amelia who express their emotions in a formal style, with full-blown arias, cabalettas and grand duets.
The tracks listed above are excerpted from from Un ballo in maschera, Deutsche Grammophon 453 149-2. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Claudio Abbado, conductor. Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Renato Bruson, Edita Gruberova
Photo: (banner) Catherine Naglestad as Amelia and Piotr Beczala as Riccardo in the Berlin Staatsoper production of Un ballo in maschera, 2008. Photo: Ruth Walz
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001