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OPERA REVIEW

Music over silence


Un Ballo in Maschera (Gustave III)
Composed by: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Antonio Somma, based on Eugene Scribe's libretto Gustave ou Le Bal masqué
Written for Daniel François Esprit Auber
Conducted by: Rastislav Štúr
Where:Slovak National Theatre (SND), Hviezdoslavovo námestie, Bratislava
Next performance: January 17
Performed: 1
Rating:8 of 10

Un Ballo in Maschera (Gustave III)
Composed by: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Antonio Somma, based on Eugene Scribe's libretto Gustave ou Le Bal masqué
Written for Daniel François Esprit Auber
Conducted by: Rastislav Štúr
Where:Slovak National Theatre (SND), Hviezdoslavovo námestie, Bratislava
Next performance: January 17
Performed: 1
Rating:8 of 10

BEST known for his patriotic operas, such as Nabucco and Don Carlos, which served as allegories of the Risorgimento, the Italian independence and unification movement, Giuseppe Verdi may not have anticipated the controversy the libretto to Un Ballo in Maschera would create.

Based on the true story of the assassination of Swedish King Gustave III in 1792, it had already been the subject of no less than three operas, and only at the end of the drama, when Gustave's subjects mourn the loss of their progressive king, could any resemblance to Italian politics conceivably be implied.

The mid-nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for Italy. Austria occupied much of the country, but had ceded control of some cities to French royalty, and the Risorgimento was gaining in popularity. There wasn't much room for taking risks. Therefore, when the assassination written into Un Ballo in Maschera seemed too close for comfort to the assassination attempt that had recently been made on Napoleon III of France, the French censors ordered major changes.

Several disputes over this censorship led, fortunately, not to the production being silenced altogether, but to the relocation of the opera's setting from the Court of Gustave III, King of Sweden, to 17th-century colonial Boston, under the governorship of Riccardo, the Count of Warwick. Other characters were altered accordingly.

Ironically, Verdi eventually preferred the changes, believing that Italians would find colonial America more exotic than the original setting, and that the changes better highlighted one of the opera's major themes: the conflict between light and darkness.

In 1935, the Swedish setting was reintroduced in Copenhagen, and this has remained the version often preferred in modern productions, including the Slovak National Theatre's, which premiered the opera from December 19 to 21.

Costume designer Ľudmila Várossová's choice of black trenchcoats and police uniforms added a modern feeling, but one wonders about the rationale for this. Did director Pavol Smolík truly intend to communicate the work's deeper meaning, or state something about today's society?

The SND's artists have always been its greatest asset, and the cast did not disappoint. Michal Lehotský (Gustav III) once again demonstrated his trademark vocal stamina and pure, soaring high notes, though certain vowels in his first act aria, La rivedrá nell'estasi, were too nasal. Unlike many tenors, who struggle in their upper register, Lehotský obviously relishes higher notes, where his voice blossoms and reveals its greatest strengths.

Andrea Danková (Amelia) was equally impressive. She and Lehotský may have lacked passionate personal chemistry, but their duets were potent artistic elixirs that flowed along the contours of the music's legato phrases and elicited cheers from the audience. Danková also demonstrated effective intensity and control during the silences of her third act aria Morro, ma prima in grazia. She refused to be rushed, took her time during rests, and drew the audience in.

Naturally, this was aided by conductor Rastislav Štúr, whose strong direction extracted authentic Verdi swells from the orchestra and a round, loud sound from the usually timid chorus, as well as from Mikuláš Doboš (Count Horn) and Vladimír Kubovčík (Count Ribbing), whose richness added weight and a contrast that heightened the drama.

Sergej Tolstov's (Renato) aria Eri tu showed his better qualities, but he often fell behind in the music, let his diction get in the way of the legato, and ran out of energy by Act III. Petra Nôtová's (Oscar) light, bouncy voice accurately depicted the French style Verdi had intended for the role. Agnieszka Zwierko (Ulrica) had an appropriately thick and powerful voice that matched her big wig. Adorning her lair were tall, thin women dressed in long, draping, blood-red dresses, who clung to the walls and stalked the stage, contributing to a mystical and spooky atmosphere.

Changes forced by censorship led to one of Verdi's greatest, most successful works. Perhaps this adds new meaning to the great English conductor Leopold Stokowski's statement: "Musicians paint their pictures on silence."

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