A MASKED BALL
Austin Lyric Opera launches its 2014-2015 season with the masterfully rich and cunning drama of Verdi’s A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera), foundational support provided by the Georgia B. Lucas Foundation.
Join us for this new production, featuring a haunting new set, beautiful costumes and powerful vocal talents. This classic Verdi drama, featuring illicit love, loyalty and betrayal, presents a king, Riccardo, who has fallen for the wife of his best friend and closest adviser. When a fortune teller foresees his murder, Riccardo laughs it off, just as he has other rumors of his assassination. But as the plot unfolds we realize it’s not another person’s quest for power but rather revenge that will lead to his demise.
Stage director Leon Major collaborates with world-renowned projection artist Wendall Harrington to create a stage that uniquely dazzles while also drawing your attention to tuneful music and voices that make up Verdi’s magnificent composition. With the help of University of Texas at Austin and their Department of Theatre and Dance students, our magical set will transport you out of The Long Center and deep into the lives of these tragic characters whom you’ve just met. That’s the transformative power of opera, after all.
Based on the 1792 assassination of Swedish King Gustavo at a masked ball in Stockholm, the opera takes us through a full range of emotions with moments of lighter comic scenes mixed with intensely emotional ones. At the end of Verdi’s three acts, you’ll understand fully why this opera continues to stun audiences today.
Learn more about the production, the principal artists,the synopsis and how to buy tickets.
To learn more about this production, we sat down with director Leon Major, a Canadian opera and theater director, to preview his vision for A Masked Ball.
ALO: Give us an idea about your vision for the production.
Major: Essentially, A Masked Ball is about two people in love, a love that is not possible to satisfy because one of them is the wife of the best friend. So you’ve got private scenes and public scenes.
For this production, we’ll use a contemporary setting, and that has a basis in history. When Verdi first wrote Un ballo en maschera it was about the assassination of the king of Sweden in 1792. But he was forced to change it because the censors at that time would not allow you to display regicide on the stage.
So he changed it and set it in Italy, but again the censors rejected it because they would not allow the theatrical reenactment of any aristocracy or nobility being killed on the stage. So once again, he changed it, this time setting it in then-modern-day Boston, making the king the governor of a colony.
But really, you could set A Masked Ball in any country with almost any form of government because, as we well know, there are always factions within any government that want to destroy it.
ALO: The set for this production of “A Masked Ball” will be a projection design by Wendall Harrington, one of the world’s foremost and revered projection designers. What is it like telling a story with such a spare set?
Major: Well, sometimes opera productions obscure what the story is. So the goal here is to make sure the story is clear, as told through the singers. So in the first scene, in the prelude, we’ll see the representatives of this government in their gray suits coming in for the early morning meeting, which is the first chorus of the opera. And you’ll see this space completely defined by light.
Once that meeting is over, Riccardo comes in and is greeted by the parliamentarians and given papers that he has to review. So he goes into his private office, again totally defined by light, and his page, Oscar, comes in and hands him a list of people who will be at the ball. Riccardo looks down this list and sees the name of his love: “Oh, Amelia!” So immediately we establish who Amelia is and how Riccardo feels about her.
Then Renato, Amelia’s husband and Riccardo’s trusted advisor, comes into the Riccardo’s office, and we hear Riccardo think, “Oh my God, it’s her husband.” And that’s how we know who loves whom.
ALO: It’s interesting how you have to set-up such a complicated story so quickly and in another language! The English translation on the supertitles helps, but really isn’t it the work of Verdi to do it, right?
Major:Yes, Verdi masterfully sets-up the scene, the characters and their relationships before you. So what we learn in that early scene is that Renato is not only best friend and trusted advisor to Riccardo, but he also looks out for Riccardo by telling him that he has a list of conspirators who want to kill him. Riccardo answers this by saying he doesn’t want to see the list, he doesn’t care. He says “I’m the governor of all the people.”
Of course, by this time we’ve already met the conspirators, back in the first scene with the chorus as the parliamentarians. That’s where you meet this little faction that is talking about how they’re going to kill Riccardo.
Then a judge comes in asking Riccardo to sign papers that would exile a fortune teller for, according to him, corrupting the youth. But Oscar intervenes to defend the fortune teller, asking Riccardo not to exile the fortune teller because she brings the people comfort.
This is when Riccardo decides to investigate this fortune teller himself, and he invites the parliamentarians to take off their suits and come to the carnival.
ALO: And now the intrigue begins…
Major:Now we set the second scene, which normally takes place in some remote location… but we set it at a carnival, kind of like a Coney Island setting with the Ferris wheel and those tawdry ring-toss games and fortune teller booths. We see Amelia come to the fortune teller, who also has a reputation for magic, and she says, “I’ve got this ache in my heart that I must get rid of,” and “How do I do that?”
ALO: But there’s always room in an opera for some interpretation, right?
Major: Yes, right. In the various writings about Verdi’s A Masked Ball, there’s a discussion about Ulrica, the fortune teller, and whether her character is a charlatan or an actual seer. But I’ve taken the view that she’s a charlatan – a very astute charlatan. And the description in the text is really interesting because the playwright describes her as being astute enough to know that if Amelia really wants to get rid of Riccardo and that ache in her heart, Amelia will try whatever she tells her. So she gives her this advice to go to this remote place and find this particular herb, and that if she tastes this herb at midnight, she will be over Riccardo.
Well, that’s poppycock of course. But what it really does is test the will of Amelia, and if she truly wants to get rid of that ache, she’ll go.
So Riccardo overhears all this and follows her. Again, in other productions the setting has been different, but we’ve set this scene in a kind of collapsed, overgrown glass nurseries, again all via projections. Renato, who had originally come to warn Riccardo about his assassins, realizes what’s going on and takes Amelia home where he threatens to kill her.
But then he changes his mind. Deciding instead to kill Riccardo and join the conspirators. Riccardo meanwhile is having terrible second thoughts and decides to send Renato and Amelia to England to be the ambassadors.
Finally, in the last scene at the masked ball, Renato shoots Riccardo right in front of Amelia, and he dies.
ALO: Do you think we’ll feel sorrier for Riccardo, Renato or Amelia?
Major: The audience should feel for all of these characters. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. After all, no human being can deny what the heart says. A year later you may not love that person anymore, but at that moment you do. And at that moment you should be treated kindly. None of the characters here can help it. There’s no deliberate collusion, nobody’s saying, “Ha-ha, we’ll fall in love and run away.” They can’t avoid each other. That’s not a bad thing, that is something to be sympathized with.
ALO: What are the some arias or moments that you think will be the most memorable?
Major: A Masked Ball is a funny opera in that there’s this mix of high opera and very funny, very frothy music. For example, there is no froth in Don Carlo… unless you count the Catholic priest. That’s how frothy that opera is.
The Oscar character has two arias that are a great deal of fun. And Amelia has two incredibly gorgeous arias. But the most famous is probably Renato’s “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima”, which means “It was you” who caused this, meaning Riccardo.
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi | Libretto: Antonio Somma | Conductor: Richard Buckley | Stage Director: Leon Major| Projection Design: Wendall Harrington | Chorus Master: Marc David Erck | Scenic Designer: Richard Isackes | Costume Designer: Hope Bennett | Lighting Designer: Michelle Habeck
Sung in Italian with the English translation projected above the stage, in three acts. An intermission will occur after Act 2.
Featuring the Austin Lyric Opera Chorus and the Austin Lyric Opera Orchestra.
Watch as Debut Artist Dominick Chenes performs a selection from A Masked Ball. Austin Lyric Opera is proud to introduce rising opera stars like Chenes to the Austin audience.
Dominick Chenes, tenor singing Riccardo – Chenes, originally from Las Vegas, is a student of Mr. Bill Schuman at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). He earned a Bachelors and a Masters in Musical-Vocal Performance from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Chenes won second prize in the Gerda Lissner Foundation competition, as well as a grant award from the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation competition both in 2013.
Dominick will make his professional debut as Riccardo in Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball with Austin Lyric Opera.
Dominick made his AVA debut with the same role in April of 2013 and had the privilege of working with director, Maestro Tito Capobianco. That same year, Chenes attended the Russian Opera Workshop under the direction of Mr. Ghena Meirson. He also enjoyed three years of success at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Upcoming roles with AVA include, Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme, and Faust in Charles Gounod’s Faust.
Francesca da Rimini, Russian Opera Workshop: “Mr. Chenes sang the challenging tenor role of Paolo with unflagging energy and masterful technique. As his music modulated ever upward in the love duet, the beauty of his voice, his stentorian tone, and his passionate performance had me sitting on the edge of my seat!” – Ralph Helms, Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music 2013
Un ballo in maschera, The Academy of Vocal Arts: “A breakout star is Dominick Chenes as Riccardo…his vocal quality just kept giving.” – Lew Whittington, Huffington Post
Jason Howard, baritone singing Renato – Jason Howard is known as one of the United Kingdom”s leading performers on the international operatic stage. Upon leaving his first career as a fireman he took up studies in London at Trinity and the Royal Colleges of music with John Wakefield and Norman Bailey respectively. He commenced his career at Scottish Opera, subsequently singing with all the major UK opera companies and orchestras. In the past fifteen years, as well as his UK performances, he has sung to critical acclaim throughout Europe and North America.
Tosca, Frankfurt Opera: “His ‘declaration of love’ to Tosca was even so convincingly fervent, that every Tenor ought to be jealous.” -Epoch Times
Die Walküre, Longborough Festival Opera: “Jason Howard was an exceptional Wotan by any standards. His voice itself has something poised and patrician about it, a distinctive elegance and gravity which he deployed to establish the complexity and depth of Wotan.” -The Wagner Society News
Mardi Byers, soprano singing Amelia – Mardi Byers is best known in Austin for her performance in the title role of last season’s Tosca. Hailed as one of the most exciting and talented artists to have emerged from the United States in recent years, Byers is making her mark on international opera and concert stages including the Hamburg State Opera, Bregenz Festival, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, New York City Opera, Opera Frankfurt, and Finnish National Opera. Her triumphant opera debut as Floria Tosca at Theater Lübeck in 2003 earned her both critical and public acclaim, prompting invitations from leading opera houses to sing the major roles of her repertoire.
Tosca, Austin Lyric Opera: “Her aria “Vissi d’arte” is astoundingly sung and acted, and her unspoken moment of fear and uncertainty at the end of the act is chilling and suspenseful.” -Broadway World
Tosca, Austin Lyric Opera: “The piercing power of Byers made for a spectacular conclusion that provoked a well deserved standing ovation from the audience.” -Austin Post
Sara Ann Mitchell, soprano singing Oscar – Austin audiences enjoyed Mitchell last season in her role as Gianetta in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Mitchell, a coloratura soprano, is known for her shimmering voice and engaging stage presence.
Kiss Me Again, Ohio Light Opera: “Sara Ann Mitchell is a delicious Fifi…Kiss Me Again lies low in Mitchell’s voice, too, but she makes the low notes as alluring as her coloratura top.” -Opera News
A Masked Ball Cast & Production:
Amelia – Mardi Byers
Oscar – Sara Ann Mitchell
Ulrica/Madame Arvidson – Ann McMahon Quintero
Gustavo III/Riccardo – Dominick Chenes
Count Anckarström/Renato – Jason Howard
Count Horn/Samuel – Tom Corbeil
Count Ribing/Tom – Matthew Trevino
Chief Justice – Holton Johnson
Christiano/Silvano – Greg Jebaily
Conductor – Richard Buckley
Stage Director – Leon Major
ACT I, SCENE I
At a morning prayer meeting of government officials they praise Riccardo, Governor of the country. Among the generals and elected members there is a conspiracy to assassinate Riccardo. Oscar, Riccardo’s secretary, enters and asks Riccardo to review the guest list for the masked ball. The Governor is thrilled that Amelia, wife of his close friend and advisor, Renato, will be there. At that moment Oscar ushers Renato into the Governor’s office. Renato advises Riccardo of an assassination plot. Riccardo is aware of the conspiracy but will not take action against them. Their conversation is interrupted when the Chief Justice enters and demands that Riccardo sign a bill banishing Ulrica, a fortuneteller, who has established her presence at the local carnival. The Chief Justice accuses Ulrica, not only of deception but of destroying the morals of the public. Oscar jumps to Ulrica’s defense and describes her as a popular and harmless person, giving the citizenry some hope. Riccardo decides to see for himself; he calls for all to wear disguises, and to meet him at the carnival that evening.
ACT I, SCENE II
At the carnival Ulrica prepares to meet the public. She puts herself into a trance. Riccardo and Oscar, both disguised, enter and watch as she predicts good fortune for Silvano, a sailor in the Country’s navy. Riccardo sees to it that her prophecy comes true. Amelia enters and asks for a private audience with Ulrica. Amelia confesses she loves someone other than her husband and she wants to excise that love.
Ulrica suggests a specific plant found in a remote and desolate place that, if taken, will cure her of this love. Riccardo overhears and vows to follow her.
Members of the government arrive and watch as she predicts the Governor’s future and reluctantly reveals that the next man who shakes his hand will kill him. No one will. Renato enters and, since he did not hear the prophecy, happily shakes his hand. Since Renato is his best friend, Riccardo laughs at Ulrica’s prophecy.
ACT I, SCENE III
Amelia, in the dead of night goes to gather the herb, which, according to Ulrica, can cure her guilty love. Before she can use it Riccardo, who has followed, steps out of hiding and declares his passion for her and persuades her to confess that she loves him too. No sooner has she done so when her husband, Renato, enters to warn Riccardo that the conspirators have followed him. Amelia hides her face and both she and Renato implore Riccardo to flee. Riccardo makes Renato promise he will escort Riccardo’s (now veiled) lady back to the city without looking at her, and reluctantly leaves them. Moments later the assassins catch up with Renato and thinking he is Riccardo, threaten to kill him. Amelia drops her disguise in order to protect Renato. Renato assumes that his wife and Riccardo have been deceiving him. He arranges to meet the conspirators the next day.
ACT II, SCENE I
Renato resolves to kill Amelia but changes his mind and unites with those plotting to kill the Governor and opts to join them in the assassination plot. They draw lots to decide who will have the privilege of killing Riccardo.
ACT II, SCENE II
At the same time as the lots are being drawn Riccardo has decided not to pursue the romance and resolves to send both Renato and Amelia back to their native country.
ACT II, SCENE III
The masked ball begins. Renato and the conspirators force Oscar to reveal Riccardo’s disguise. At the ball Amelia tries to warn Riccardo but too late and Renato shoots him. In the chaos that follows Riccardo pardons all involved in the assassination.
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Single tickets and duets (a 15% savings off the price of two single tickets) go on sale in October 2014. Learn more about Austin Lyric Opera’s 2014-15 Season.