Masked Feelings

Opera Santa Barbara presents Verdi’s A Masked Ball

by Charles Donelan

The Opera Festival continues this week with A Masked
Ball
, considered to be one of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpieces
and contains some of his most elegant and powerful romantic duets.
Yefim Maizel returns to Santa Barbara to direct A Masked
Ball
. In his previous engagements here, Maizel has directed
Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor. Maizel
spoke with me last week about the upcoming show.

What went through your mind as you studied Un Ballo
in Maschera [A Masked Ball] in preparation for this
production?
I was driven by a desire to get at the
composer’s intention. Originally, Verdi was writing about the
recent assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, which had taken place
at a masquerade ball. Because of censorship in Italy, the setting
was changed to Boston, and the character’s role was shifted from
king to governor. I have updated the setting from colonial times to
the Victorian era in pursuit of a stronger connection with Verdi’s
original impulse, which was to dramatize the assassination of a
national leader.

How much did Verdi know about colonial Boston?
(Laughs.) It’s likely Verdi had little idea of what colonial
Massachusetts was like, or of what had gone on there. But that was
not the point. He was asked to move the story out of Europe, and he
did. Some contemporary productions even revert to the Swedish
setting. I chose to leave the action in Boston, but to move the
time to the late 19th century because I saw this change as
irresistible. It does so much for the story.

Could you describe what you mean by that? The
two operas in the festival are being presented within a proscenium
frame that is the same for both. This put tremendous pressure on
the people doing the costumes and lighting to find ways to
differentiate them. With Rigoletto in traditional costume,
I wanted the Masked Ball costumes to look distinctive and
modern. At first I actually proposed a film noir setting in the
1940s to the opera board, but the Victorian era is what we decided
on in the end. It allows the manners and etiquette to be much more
modern and closer to the way they are now. There are no court
intrigues or powdered wigs to distract the audience from what is
relevant and passionate in the action.

When you choose a design, where does your inspiration
come from?
Always from the music — that’s how it has to
be. You are working on finding a truthful way to visualize what is
already there in the score.

How do you feel about these characters? I like
Riccardo, the governor of Boston. Where the duke in
Rigoletto is a flashy Don Juan type, the governor is a
fuller human being, someone with a spiritual side. That’s where the
excitement in this role comes from for the tenor — in the conflict
between the physical and the spiritual.

What about the masked ball itself? How are you
approaching the finale?
There are disguises in use
throughout the opera — Amelia in her veil, the fisherman’s outfits
the men use to visit the fortuneteller, Ulrica — and there is also
the theme of hidden feelings, which can be even more disruptive
than hidden identities. The governor must hide his feelings for his
friend’s wife, and yet what he doesn’t know is the conspirators
around him who are pretending to be his friends are also hiding
their feelings from him. So the finale is very much in keeping with
what has come before. When the characters put on their masks,
that’s when the real facts of the matter come out. Of course, the
final truth is death, as the governor learns to his distress.

Thanks so much for speaking with me. I look forward to
the production.
Thank you; it was my pleasure.

4•1•1

Opera Santa Barbara presents A Masked Ball Saturday, March 3 and
Friday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 11 at 2:30 p.m. at
the Lobero Theatre. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.

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