The online opera guide to UN BALLO IN MASCHERA
After the music-dramatic operas “Macbeth” and “Simon Boccanegra”, Verdi returned to the Belcantist number opera with “Un ballo in maschera”. With this work Verdi offers the listener five brilliant parts and magnificent scenes. Already the premiere was one of Verdi’s most brilliant successes of his career, and the work began its triumphal march around the world.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Teco io sto (Love duet)
Roles and Synopsis
Antonio Somma, basierend auf dem Roman Gustave III ou Le bal masqué (Gustave III or The Masked Ball).
Riccardo, governor of Boston (tenor) - Renato, Creole and confidant of Riccardo (baritone) - Amelia, his wife (soprano) - Ulrica, fortune teller (contralto) - Oskar, page (soprano)
EMI, Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Ettore Bastiannini and Giulietta Simionato conducted by Andrea Gavazzeni and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan.
Libretto & Censorship
Eugene Scribe’s novel of the assassination of the Swedish king fascinated Verdi. The subject was highly topical, because one year before the premiere of “Ballo in maschera” an assassination attempt was made on Napoleon III. For this reason, the subject of a regent’s assassination on an open stage was politically explosive, and Verdi had to withdraw his version for the Neapolitan theater for reasons of censorship. He moved the story for the now Roman premiere to the unsuspicious American city of Boston. As if that were not enough, there is a third version, because Verdi had to move the story to Naples again for the Paris Version. Today, one hears two different versions with different locations and the protagonists have different names depending on the version (Gustav or Riccardo, respectively Ankerström or Renato). The Boston version is the most played. (Riccardo and Renato)
The second act
The second act forms the dramatic core of this opera. It begins with a solo aria, develops into a duet, expands to a trio with the appearance of Renato and ends as a quartet with choir.
The intensity of the famous duet “Teco io sto” has already been compared with that of Wagner’s Tristan and is considered one of the most dramatic duets ever. Verdi also spoke of “his best duet”.
The role of Riccardo
Riccardo is perhaps Verdi’s tenor role with the broadest range of expression. In the barcarole it requires the voice of a light tenor with secure high notes, in scenes like in “Scherza o follia” the lyrical bel canto singer and the dramatic tenor in the second and last act.
In addition, the role is physically demanding, as the tenor has a tremendous stage presence and must constantly sing against a dramatic, loud orchestra.
The Verdi baritone
Like many operas of the bel canto era, the “Ballo in maschera” is about a love triangle, with a woman standing between two men. Next to the tenor, Verdi usually entrusts the second male voice to a baritone voice, which occasionally even takes the leading role (for example in Simon Boccanegra, Nabucco or Rigoletto). This voice type plays an important role in Verdi’s work history.
In this Verdi opera, the baritone is the bearer of the plot. In him the whole drama takes place – Renato changes from the governor’s friend and protector to the supposedly betrayed husband, later to the enemy and murderer and finally to the repentant and forgiving. His stage presence underscores the importance of his role: as the only role he has stage presence in each of the five pictures. To underline the importance Verdi gives him two great arias.
UN BALLO IN MASCHERA ACT I
Synopsis: In the governor’s palace. Soldiers and noblemen are received in audience, they praise the nobility of the regent. A small group around Tom and Samuel plans an attack on Riccardo out of personal revenge motives.
The overture quotes many musical motifs of the opera, such as the love motif and the choir motif of the conspirators.
Ouverture – Abbado / Pavarotti
Already at the beginning of this opera in “Posa in pace” Verdi uses an important stylistic element of this opera: that of contrast. We hear the hate-filled words of the conspirators, which collide with the homage of the courtiers.
Posa in pace – Solti
Renato is the is at the heart of the tragedy
Synopsis: Oscar hands him the list of the participants of the masked ball. To his delight, he discovers Amelia on the list, whom he secretly loves. She is the wife of his best friend Renato. Soon after Riccardo meets him at the audience, where Renato tells him that a group of men wants to kill him.
You will hear Renato’s first aria sung by Piero Cappuccili, the leading Verdi baritone of the 80/90s.
Alla vita che te arride – Cappuccili
Synopsis: A judge appears and wants the signature for a banishment of Ulrica, a fortune-teller. One cannot accuse her of a crime, but she is a suspicious person. Oscar, Riccardos page, defends her and claims, that all her predictions have come true.
The role of Oscar was the only time Verdi ever wrote a trouser role. He wrote it for a coloratura soprano. It’s probably a tribute to the grand opéra.
We hear an Interpretation of Diana Damrau, one of the leading coloratura soprano of our times.
Volta la terrea – Damrau
Synopsis: Riccardo orders an immediate investigation this afternoon. Riccardo himself wants to go there disguised as a fisherman.
Verdi composed this exuberant finale in the style of a gallop, a reminiscence of his time in Paris, where Offenbach had written his great gallop in Orpheus’ Underworld a year earlier. Verdi stayed for a long time in the French capital and composed the opera “Les vêpres siciliennes” for the Grand Opéra.
Signori oggi d’Ulrica – Pavarotti
In the cave of the fortune teller
Synopsis: In the cave of the fortune-teller Ulrica. In the middle of the room a fire burns in a witch’s cauldron. The fortune teller sits in a state of trance at the cauldron, surrounded by women and men.
The role of Ulrica is strongly reminiscent of the Azucena from the Trovatore. Both are based on Verdi’s stylistic device of the Varietà, i.e. the maximum contrast of the successive scene. After the light-flooded scene of the courtly reception hall, we are now in the dark cave of the fortune-teller. Moreover, both appearances are at the beginning of the second act, both are gypsy-like figures with the same vocal range and ultimately it was the same singers who shone in this role. To mention are Fedora Barbieri, Fiorenza Cossotto or Marylin Horne.
The role of Ulrica also stands for an important aspect of performance history. In 1955 Marian Anderson sang Ulrica in Verdi’s “Masked Ball” – she was the first black woman on the MET stage. “The moment,” writes Rudolf Bing, the director of Met at the time, in his memoirs, “was one of the proudest I experienced at the MET. And: “The Supervisory Board of the Metropolitan Opera was not one of the many organisations that congratulated me”…
Tremoli in the low strings and pale clarinet sounds create a spooky atmosphere. Summoning the spirits, Ulrica sings herself into a trance.
In the playlist you will find two recordings. Cossotto’s recording is perhaps the one which is more vocal brilliant, that of Barbieri is the darker and more expressive one.
Re dell’abisso – Cossotto
Re dell’abisso, affretati – Barbieri
Amelia appears at the fortune teller’s cave
Synopsis: First, a sailor from the Navy wants to know from Ulrica when his longed-for reward will come from the governor. He’s been at sea for 15 years waiting for his reward. She reads his hand and prophesies the reward in the near future. Riccardo quickly writes a paper with the promotion to officer and slips it to the sailor unnoticed. The sailor finds the paper and is pleased that the prophecy is fulfilled so quickly. Next comes Amelia, Riccardo’s secret beloved. Riccardo hides and overhears her conversation. Amelia tells her that she is a married woman trying to forget a beloved man. Ulrica tells her to pick a certain herb in front of the cemetery this midnight . It’s juice will kill the passion. Riccardo decides to follow her, tonight. Amelia leaves the cave.
Amelia is excited, she sings with a vibrating voice the prayer “Consentimi signore” (Grant me o Lord, strength to purify my heart) (2:55).
Che v’agita cosi … Consentimi Signore (terzetto) – Callas / di Stefano / Barbieri
Synopsis: Meanwhile Riccardo’s friends have arrived and Riccardo disguised as a fisherman turns to Ulrica. He asks about his future.
Verdi has the disguised fisherman sing a beautiful barcarole. This aria “Di tu se fedele” is very demanding. On the one hand the technical difficulty is to be mentioned, but also that it requires a lyrical singing, which must be audible over a large orchestra and choir.
Listen to Jussi Björling (probably the best Riccardo in recording history) with “Di tu se fedele”.
Di tu se fedele – Björling
The tragic presage
Synopsis: Ulrica looks at his hand and is shocked. She doesn’t want to presage. But Riccardo insists. She prophesies an imminent death for him. Riccardo dismisses this as a joke.
In this scene we hear a famous ensemble piece, the quintet “è scherzo o follia”.
This 1954 production was Toscanini’s last opera recording. Toscanini knew Verdi personally and the master appreciated the young Kapellmeister very much. Toscanini told that he could still remember when he heard as a little boy the “Ballo in maschera” personally conducted by Giuseppe Verdi.
E scherzo od e follia – Toscanini
Synopsis: Laughing, he asks the fortune teller who the murderer will be. Ulrica prophesies that he will die at the hands of a friend who will be the first man to greet him that day. Riccardo reaches out his hand, but no one grabs it. Renato appears and Riccardo greets the newcomer laughing. Riccardo reveals himself as governor and explains her that her prophesy can’t be correct because Renato is his best friend. Ulrica warns him again that there are traitors among them. The sailor appears with his friends and they praise Riccardo as a kind ruler.
O figli d’inghilterrra – Fabritiis
UN BALLO IN MASCHERA ACT II
Synopsis: At night on an abandoned field in front of the cemetery.
Verdi was always looking for stories that inspire him. The source of inspiration was not so much the plaot but human passions (“soggetti di sentimento”). This second picture of this opera truly inspired Verdi must be considered one of his greatest scenes.
Synopsis: Amelia appears.
With a trembling voice Maria Callas sings this passage unforgettably. In Gavazzeni’s recording she can show all the colours of her voice and is at the height of her art.
Ecco l’orrido campo … – Callas
The confession of love – the famous duet “Teco io sto
Synopsis: She doesn’t know, that Riccardo followed her. Riccardo steps out and confesses his burning love to her. Amelia is torn between her love for Riccardo and the oath of allegiance to her husband.
The duets between Riccardo and Amelia are dramatically conceived. The music for “Teco io sto” does not come to rest, Dissonances and syncopations lead to a ecstatic love scene. Riccardo presses the “I love you” out of Amelia. Verdi told in later years, tha he felt this scene to be one of his great compositional moments.
We hear this scene in 3 recordings, first two documents with Jussi Björling.
Björling’s version with Zinka Milanov comes from a recording of a live performance and shows two artists at the highest level. The confession of love is overwhelming and ecstatic (7:15). The document comes from a 1956 film adaptation of two actors “singing” playback the recording of Milanov/Björling from 1940.
Teco io sto (1) – Björling/Milanov
The recording of the duo Björling with Elisabeth Rethberg is famous. It is the only recording of the two, Rethberg was already in the autumn of their career, so the sound document of these two titans is all the more important. The passage “m’ami” (from 4:45) is goes under the skin. It is also remarkable how effortlessly the two glide to the high C, which Björling then holds a few seconds longer than the German (9:12).
Teco io sto (2) – Björling/Rethberg
For Pavarotti this duet was the greatest duet in opera history, which can only be compared to the love duet from Tristan. Domingo also expressed himself with similar words, quoting the passage “irridiami d’amor” where the orchestra literally explodes and all the ecstasy breaks out.
Teco io sto (3) – Pavarotti / Arroyo
Surprisingly, Renato appears
Synopsis: To their surprise Renato appears. He has followed his friend because he overheard a conversation of the conspirators and learned that they want to lie in wait for him this night. Amelia recognizes Renato and pulls her veil over her face. Renato implores Riccardo to get to safety and offers to lead the unknown woman back to the city. Riccardo agrees. They exchange coats and Riccardo leaves the field. Amelia and Renato are on their way. But the conspirators stop them. They think Renato is the governor. When they recognize Renato, they want to know who the unknown woman is. Renato draws his sword to defend the honor of the woman. Amelia knows that this fight would cost Renato his life and she takes her veil off her face. In disbelief they recognize Amelia. Renato is deeply struck, the conspirators mock Renato’s rendezvous with his own wife. With a dark voice Renato announces a meeting with the conspirators for the next morning.
Verdi and his librettist Somma have created a great “colpo di scena”, a dramatic turning point of the plot that leads into a great concertato with solo voices and choir. This quintet (which may have been modelled on his famous counterpart “bella figlia d’amore” from Rigoletto) shows how dramatically Verdi composed his scenes. Here the profound tragedy of the married couple and there the buffonesque mockery with which the conspirators pour over the husband.
Ahimé… seguitemi – di Stefano/Callas
UN BALLO IN MASCHERA ACT III
Amelias great Aria ”Morro ma prima in grazia”
Synopsis: Back in the house, Renato announces that Amelia will atone for her adultery with her death. Amelia swears that her marriage has not been tainted. But Renato’s decision has been made. Amelia wants to see her son one last time.
Amelia’s Aria is a contemplative piece, accompanied by a solo cello. After the drama of the preceding scenes, the contrast to this resting point is immense; her voice never goes beyond a mezzoforte, except for the last few bars. The singers must show great emotions. After this great effort, the last part of this aria with the repeated repetition of “mai piu vedrà” must be mastered with difficult jumps to the Bb and Ces.
We hear a moving, almost prayer-like interpretation with beautiful solo cello accompaniment, sung by Ljuba Welitsch, one of her best recordings ever.
Morro ma prima in grazia (1) – Welitsch
Intimate but nevertheless extremely expressive is the interpretation by Elisabeth Rethberg. Besides Rosa Ponselle she was the great soprano of the 20’s.
Morro ma prima in grazia (2) – Rethberg
We hear a more expressive interpretation from Angela Gheorghiu
Morro ma prima in grazia (3) – Gheorghiu
Kesting highly appreciates Milanov’s interpretation: “The scene at the place of execution becomes a vocally perfect and dramatically suggestive transformation of a highly excited state of mind into a sound form… It is a singing that – except for Maria Callas – has not been achieved by any singer of the complete recordings.”
Morro ma prima in grazia (4) – Milanov
Renato’s decision for revenge
Synopsis: Renato grants her this last request. Alone in the room Renato breaks down. He decides that he wants to spare Amelia, but that Riccardo must pay for his shameful betrayal.
To the characteristic “Verdi baritone” Verdi has written many great arias full of melancholy and pain. “Eri tu” is one of the greatest arias of its kind.
Listen to “Eri tu” in the great interpretation of the Italian baritone Ettore Bastiannini, which really gets under your skin!
Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima – Bastiannini
Synopsis: Samuel and Tom appear and Renato tells them that he knows everything about their conspiracy. He wants to join them and be the one who kills him. Each of them demands this right for themselves, so they want to let the lot decide. Tom writes down 3 names and throws them into an vase. When Amelia, Renato wants her to draw the lot. Horrified Amelia draws the lot on which Renato’s name is written. Somebody knocks on the door. Oscar appears and delivers the invitation for the masked ball in the evening. The conspirators decide to kill the governor tonight.
Ah di che fulgor, che musiche – Hernandez / Rodriguez
Riccardos great aria
Synopsis: Riccardo is in his study. He has decided to send Renato and his wife to England to protect Amelia from adultery. He wants to saygoodbye to her in the evening and writes the decree.
With this famous aria Verdi confronts the tenor with a difficult task. Both breathed pianissimo and full forte are required, the voice demands low notes, but also has dramatic, long, highly written passages and goes up to high Bb.
Besides Duca in Rigoletto, Riccardo was Pavarotti’s favourite role in the Verdi operas. Riccardos is perhaps Verdi’s tenor role with the broadest range of expression and colours.
Forse la soglia attinse… Ma se m’è forza perderti – Pavarotti
Domingo sang Riccardo for the first time in 1967. Due to the illness of a singer, a planned Aida was cancelled at short notice and replaced by a Ballo. Domingo was asked, and he agreed spontaneously, although he didn’t know the role yet. He learned the role in only 3 days “with the help of his wife and the recordings of Gigli”.
Forse la soglia attinse… Ma se m’è forza perderti – Domingo
Synopsis: Oscar appears and delivers a message from an unknown woman. She warns Riccardo of an assassination attempt during the masked ball. Riccardo goes to the theater where the masked ball has already begun. There Renato istalking to Oscar and learns from him how the governor is dressed up.
This role is immediately reminiscent of Mozart’s Cherubino. Verdi highly estimated Mozart and much has been written about this relationship.
Oskar is a figure of the opéra comique, a light-footed role with a somewhat naïve cheerfulness. All the more dramatic is the fact that in the end (unknowingly) he gives the assassin the tip in which costume the governor can be found. And in the end the governor even dies in Oskar’s arms.
We hear and see an excerpt with Sumi Jo from a production of the Salzburg Festival. Herbert von Karajan died in the weeks of preparation for this production and was replaced by Georg Solti. Karajan valued Sumi Jo’s singing skills highly.
Saper vorreste – Sumi Jo
Synopsis: Riccardo and Amelia meet. Amelia asks him to leave the ball immediately. They confess their love again and Riccardo hands her the decree that she will go to England with her husband tomorrow. Moved, they say goodbye to each other.
While the drama unfolds, Verdi has a minuet played backstage, which means a parallel to Mozart’s work, with different musical groups playing simultaneously, as we know it from the final act of “Don Giovanni”. The excited words of the two form a captivating contrast to the courtly dance music, thus underlining the drama.
Ah! Perché Qui! Fuggite- T’amo, Si, T’amo – Callas/diStefano
Synopsis: Renato was watching them. He jumps at Riccardo and kills him with a dagger. Soldiers attack Renato. The dying Riccardo orders the release of Renato. Amelia shows Renato the departure decree and he realises that Amelia’s honour has remained untouched. Riccardo forgives him and collapses dead.
Verdi always gives his positive figures who die a big farewell. So Riccardo is granted a beautiful death scene with a large cantilena and a painful melody.
ah perche qui…ella è pura (finale) – Callas/di Stefano
EMI with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano under the direction of Andrea Gavazzeni and the choir and orchestra of La Scala di Milano.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to UN BALLO IN MASCHERA by Giuseppe Verdi.