By Lawrence A. Johnson

Francesco Meli sang the part of Riccardo in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, with Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One miracles what Giuseppe Verdi would have believed of a effectiveness of his opera A Masked Ball in which the full audience is wearing masks.

Riccardo Muti is closing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season with Un ballo in maschera, which opened Thursday evening at Symphony Centre. This is the fifth and closing Verdi concert opera of the Italian conductor’s tenure as CSO music director. Un ballo will be repeated Saturday and Tuesday. 

Premiered in 1859, Un ballo in maschera caused the composer no conclude of battles with the censors. Initially referred to as Gustavo III and set in late 18th-century Sweden, the plot of a appreciate triangle in which a reigning king is assassinated onstage was deemed unacceptable because of to contemporary political fears. A modify of spot to 14th century Florence did not pass muster both to get the opera authorized, the pissed off composer lastly moved the locale to Boston where by the sovereign turned governor of Massachusetts.

Hence Un ballo grew to become, begrudgingly, the only Verdi opera set in America. Modifying the conspirators’ names to Tom and Samuel was the only concession to the new setting, and there is nothing in the opera to recommend colonial Massachusetts, significantly much less Boston. (While just one can consider the duo hatching their plot at the Union Oyster Household.)

The governor Riccardo is in like with Amelia, the wife of his best friend and trustworthy advisor Renato. Even with his acceptance with the people, plots from the governor’s everyday living are afoot, which Renato warns him about. The fortune teller Ulrica also predicts an impending loss of life for Riccardo, which he laughs off. Renato discovers Riccardo in a midnight assembly with Amelia, and, furious at what he thinks (erroneously) to be a betrayal by his wife and near pal, secretly joins the assassins. Riccardo has resolved to deliver Renato absent to end his obsession with Amelia, yet it is much too late. At a festive masked ball, Renato kills the governor. In his closing times, Riccardo tells Renato that his wife is wholly harmless of adultery and he forgives his mate, inquiring his ministers to do the exact.

Un ballo is among the the richest operas of Verdi’s middle period of time, with a hanging depth of characters and various palette of orchestral shades. The opera deftly mixes intensive drama with lighter moments, supplying fizzing ensembles and soaring arias for Riccardo, as perfectly as primary showpiece alternatives for the other four principals.

Muti appeared a bit haggard Thursday night, but that was the only sign of the optimistic Covid take a look at that pressured him to withdraw from last week’s concert events. He led the CSO, CSO Refrain and soloists in a rousing, blood-and-thunder performance with customary podium vitality and concentration. Some of the souped-up climaxes went around the prime, with Muti, atypically, burying the singers at the conclude of Act 1 and a pair sites elsewhere. However the performance was undeniably thrilling with ceaseless extraordinary momentum and crackling theatricality, even sans sets and costumes.

In addition to a persistently buoyant rhythmic carry, Muti was specially motivated in highlighting the subtleties and pastel hues of Verdi’s scoring—as with the hushed violin counterpoint underneath the woodwinds in the opening Prelude, and the string quartet in the final moments. It is emblematic of the care taken with this performance that Muti divided the ensembles in the title ball of Act 3 with the 12-member wind banda off to the left and the quartet previously mentioned them in the balcony.

Muti has forged his Chicago operas continuously nicely, and these kinds of was mostly the scenario as soon as again with this ultimate installment in the Verdi sequence.

Un ballo is just one of the few Verdi operas with a juicy tenor position at the prime of the cast, and Francesco Meli built the most of his opportunities. Pursuing his CSO debut as Macduff in Muti’s Macbeth of 2013, Meli was an impressive Radames in Muti’s Aida a few yrs in the past.

The Genoa native possesses an ample voice and if his earnest vocalism missed some of Riccardo’s charm and reckless bravado, Meli sang with unfailing fervor and wealthy Italianate tone. He could have been pushing a bit, with his voice breaking momentarily at the close of the Act 2 enjoy duet, “O quel soave brivido.” Using an offstage respite in the course of the long, Riccardo-considerably less opening scene of Act 3 appeared to help, and Meli returned to carry fine heroic tone and sensitivity to the opera’s finale.

Riccardo Muti conducts Un ballo in maschera with Joyce El-Khoury (Amelia) and Luca Salsi (Renato) Thursday evening, Photograph: Todd Rosenberg

Luca Salsi was Renato, Riccardo’s close friend who turns in opposition to him. A commanding Macbeth in Muti’s CSO performances 9 a long time in the past, the Italian baritone’s instrument has darkened in the intervening close to-ten years and grown burly in timbre. If his voice now feels to some degree small for this aspect, Salsi provided an idiomatic and authoritative portrayal. In “Eri tu”—one of Verdi’s finest arias for baritone—Salsi sent a emphasize of the evening. He communicated not just the regular stentorian anger at Riccardo but, with excellent emotional immediacy, the psychic desperation of a guy devastated by what he thinks is his wife’s betrayal.

The wild card in the forged was Joyce El-Khoury as Amelia, the centre of the opera’s appreciate triangle. The Canadian singer’s gentle soprano is manifestly slender for this part and she basically did not have the electricity nor the tonal opulence to journey the surging waves of her arias. That stated, El-Khoury sang with greet experience and sensitivity, affectingly so in “Morro, ma prima in grazia.”

As Ulrica, Yulia Matochkina shipped an estimable overall performance as the mysterious fortuneteller. When the Russian mezzo’s voice did not rather possess the ideal contralto depths, she was a persuasive existence in Act 1, creating her ominous imprecations jarringly spectacular, and singing with hearth and searing depth.  

Damiana Mizzi proved perfect as Oscar, Riccardo’s web page. In this trousers job, the soprano introduced the requisite shiny tone and coloratura aptitude to her lighthearted arias. Additional than most of the forged, the Italian soprano succeeded in entirely portray a character in this concert format, with facial expressions and reactions that reflected the ongoing motion.

Seated guiding the principals, bass-baritones Kevin Small and Alfred Walker produced a fantastic, subterranean-voiced duo as the conspirators Tom and Samuel, amusing in their sung laughter at Renato’s discomfiture in Act 2.

Baritone Riccardo Jose Rivera was a big-voiced Silvano and Lunga Eric Hallam and Aaron Quick made reliable cameos in smaller roles.

Donald Palumbo, refrain master of the Metropolitan Opera, organized the CSO Chorus, which sang with luxurious and majestic energy, overwhelmingly so in the ensemble climaxes.  

The orchestra was at its very best as it typically is in these Muti-led Verdi performances. In addition to the gleaming company refinement and sonorous spectacular punch at climaxes, specific musicians shone in their spotlighted moments—none far more than Scott Hostetler and John Sharp, in their aria obbligato solos, for English horn and cello, respectively.

Un ballo in maschera will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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