at Lyric Opera

When Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma set out to make an opera about the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden they ran straight into censorship. Italy of the 1850s was a turbulent place where corrupt old sovereignties, relics of the Middle Ages, were tottering toward extinction. The Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies–which included Naples, where Verdi hoped to premiere Un ballo in maschera–was among the most decrepit of these relics, and the office of the censor was a staff in its hand, helping it cling to a semblance of movement and life. At that time a projected new work had to be submitted to the censor before it went to the stage. Even in the best of times regicide was a touchy subject, and with the winds of Italian nationalism blowing, the royal censor was doubly on his guard. At first it seemed the authorities could be appeased by specific changes to the story line, the most important of which were the demotion of the protagonist from king to duke and the removal of the scene of action from Sweden. Yet after these demands were met, permission for a performance was refused and further extensive modifications were insisted on.

Verdi decided Naples was not the place for the premiere and proceeded to plan for one in Rome. The papal censor proved more malleable, and the opera opened with the changes required by the Sicilian censor and, an extra condition, the action removed from Europe altogether. Thus Ballo came into the world in the rather unlikely guise of a story about a governor of the Massachusetts colony in the 17th century.

With the effective unification of Italy in 1860 Verdi’s problems with censors were a thing of the past. Yet though he could have had the opera performed in its original form anytime after 1860, he never did. The assumption is that he considered the changes unimportant to the finished work. This might seem inexplicable to the politicized citizens of the 20th-century arts community, but with Verdi it was passion and drama first and to hell with politics. Lyric’s Ballo follows the relatively recent fashion of restoring the action to the Swedish court of Gustav III. This adds nothing to the opera or the coherence of the story, but as 20th-century production conceits go it’s a relatively benign one and at least fulfills the Hippocratic principle of doing the patient no harm.

On opening night the musical performances were at or near the peak of what Lyric is capable of. Tenor Kristjan Johannsson gave a dashing performance as Gustavus (normally Riccardo), the love-struck king. His clear tenor rang through the house, and though such comparisons are odious, it must be admitted that there’s a bit of a Pavarotti timbre to Johannsson’s voice. Sharon Sweet’s exceptional dramatic soprano has an almost altolike quality in the lower ranges, as well as high notes a Brunnhilde could envy. Unfortunately, Sweet’s build is distracting; imagine a female counterpart to Lauritz Melchior (described by Rudolf Bing as a moving couch) and you have the picture. Vladimir Chernov as Renato (interesting name for a Swede), Count Anckarstrom, gave a commanding performance as the jealous and vengeful husband.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in mounting a production of Ballo is finding three first-rate singers for the three female roles, but Lyric has rounded out the female roster with two stunning voices. Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz (Oscar) has a wonderful, agile soprano, and Stefania Toczyska (Arvidson) leaves one wondering how such a beautiful low alto tone can come from a comparatively slight figure. In the minor principal roles Elias Mokole gave a clear and enthusiastic rendition of the sailor. Rodrick Dixon (the judge) and Patrick Denniston (Amelia’s servant) gave acceptable performances. Disappointing were the performances of Stefan Szkafarowsky and Mark Doss, who huffed and woofed their way through the roles of the conspirators Horn and Ribbing (usually Tom and Sam).

The Lyric Chorus was, as one has come to expect, well prepared by Donald Palumbo, while Daniele Gatti led the orchestra in a lively rendition of the score. In some places Gatti’s tempi seemed a bit on the hurried side, but on the whole his interpretation was defensible. The capable handling of principals and meticulous attention to action details seen in this production are trademarks of director Sonja Frisell. The sets by John Conklin, already familiar to Lyric audiences from their previous appearances on the Civic Opera stage in 1980 and 1986, are sumptuous.

Contemporary performance practice generally dictates that four- and five-act grand operas be recast in three acts. Considering that Ballo is a work of modest scale–three acts that run about 130 minutes–it was truly bizarre to find the relatively short second act split in two. The backstage story is that Sweet insisted on this additional intermission because she found the music of the second act too taxing to sing without pause. This is ridiculous given that the demands of the act are modest and that she could probably sing a Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde without working up much of a sweat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.