A MASKED BALL
Austin Lyric Opera launches its 2014-15 Season with the rich drama, A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera) by Giuseppe Verdi.
Join us for this new production, featuring a haunting new set, sharp new costumes and amazing vocal talents. We set an unforgettable scene for Verdi’s classic drama about a king, Riccardo, in love with 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 now another person’s quest for power but rather revenge that will lead to his demise.
Stage director Leon Majors collaborates with world-renowned projection artist Wendall Harrington to set a stage that somehow dazzles while also focusing all of our attention on the music and voice. The magical setting will transport you out of The Long Center deep into the lives of these tragic characters you’ve just met. That’s the magic of opera, after all.
Based on the true-life assassination of the Swedish King Gustavo at a masked ball in Stockholm in 1792, 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 the 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 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 if 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 that government that want to destroy it.
ALO: This 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 a 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 her name: “Oh, Amelia!” So immediately we establish who Amelia is and how Riccardo feels about her.
Then Renato 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 it’s 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: There’s room in the opera for some interpretation, right?
Major: Yes, right. In the various writings about Verdi’s A Masked Ball, there’s a discussion about Ulricha, 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 he 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 really what it really does is test the will of Amelia, and if she really 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 by projection. Renato, who had originally come to warn Riccardo about his assassins, realizes what’s going on and take Amelia home where he threatens to kill her.
But then he changes his mind. He decides not to kill her but 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 specific arias or moments 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: Mark Erck
Sung in Italian with English translation projected above stage, in three acts.
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 – Dominick Chenes opens ALO’s 28th season by singing the role of Riccardo in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Originally from Las Vegas, NV, Chenes studies at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where his debut role was Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. Upcoming engagements with AVA include Gherman in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata.
In 2013, Chenes won second prize in the Gerda Lissner Foundation competition as well as a grant award from the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation competition. 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.
Mr. Chenes makes his professional debut with ALO and A Masked Ball.
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, AVA: “A breakout star is Dominick Chenes as Riccardo…his vocal quality just kept giving.” – Lew Whittington, Huffington Post 2013
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.”
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.”
Mardi Byers, soprano singing Ameilia – 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.”
Tosca, Austin Lyric Opera: “The piercing power of Byers made for a spectacular conclusion that provoked a well deserved standing ovation from the audience.”
Sara Ann Mitchell, soprano signing Oscar – Austin audiences enjoyed Mitchell last season in her role as Gianetta in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Mitchell, an emerging 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.”
Synopsis courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
At the royal palace, courtiers await an audience with King Riccardo, including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing. The king enters. He notices the name of Amelia, wife of his secretary and friend, Count Renato, on the guest list for a masked ball, and thinks about his secret love for her. Left alone with Riccardo, Renato warns the king of a conspiracy against him, but Riccardo ignores the threat. The young page Oscar tells the king about the fortuneteller Madame Ulricha, who has been accused of witchcraft and is to be banished. Deciding to see for himself, the king arranges for his court to pay her an incognito visit.
In a building by the port, Madame Ulricha invokes prophetic spirits and tells the sailor Cristiano that he will soon become wealthy and receive a promotion. The king, who has arrived in disguise, slips money and papers into Cristiano’s pockets. When the sailor discovers his good fortune, everybody praises Madame Ulricha’s abilities. Riccardo hides as she sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who is tormented by her love for the king and asks for help. Madame Ulricha tells her that she must gather a magic herb after dark. When Amelia leaves, Riccardo decides to follow her that night. Oscar and members of the court enter, and the king asks Madame Ulricha to read his palm. She tells him that he will die by the hand of a friend. Riccardo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the assassin. Madame Ulricha replies that it will be the first person that shakes his hand. When Renato rushes in Riccardo clasps his hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Renato is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers him as the conspirators grumble their discontent.
That night, Amelia, who has followed Madame Ulricha’s advice to find the herb, expresses her hope that she will be freed of her love for the king. When Riccardo appears, she asks him to leave, but ultimately they admit their love for each other. Amelia hides her face when Renato suddenly appears, warning the king that assassins are nearby. Riccardo makes Renato promise to escort the woman back to the city without lifting her veil, then escapes. Finding Renato instead of their intended victim, the conspirators make ironic remarks about his veiled companion. When Amelia realizes that her husband will fight rather than break his promise to Riccardo, she drops her veil to save him. The conspirators are amused and make fun of Renato for his embarrassing situation. Renato, shocked by the king’s betrayal and his wife’s seeming infidelity, asks Horn and Ribbing to come to his house the next morning.
In his apartment, Renato threatens to kill Amelia. She asks to see their young son before she dies. After she has left, Renato declares that is it the king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia. Horn and Ribbing arrive, and Renato tells them that he will join the conspirators. The men decide to draw lots to determine who will kill the king, and Renato forces his wife to choose from the slips of paper. When his own name comes up he is overjoyed. Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball. As the assassins welcome this chance to execute their plan, Amelia decides to warn the king.
Riccardo, alone in his study, resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Renato to Finland. Oscar brings an anonymous letter warning him of the murder plot, but the king refuses to be intimidated and leaves for the masquerade. In the ballroom, Renato tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively but finally reveals Riccardo’s disguise. Amelia and the king meet, and she repeats her warning. Refusing to leave, he declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her away with her husband. As the lovers say goodbye, Renato shoots the king. The dying Riccardo forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Renato that his wife is innocent. The crowd praises the king’s goodness and generosity.
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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.