Un Ballo In Maschera

About the Composer


Gaetano Donizetti

The greatest Italian composer of opera, Giuseppe Francesco Fortunino Verdi was also a landowner and farmer; a philanthropist; an impossible, pessimistic, grumpy old stick-in-the-mud; and one of the founding fathers of the Italian nation. At the beginning of his life, Verdi was a simple peasant boy, the son of a humble country innkeeper, watching Napoleon's troops flee the fields of northern Italy. At his funeral, eighty-eight years later, 300,000 people burst into song in the streets of Milan as the coffin of this grand old man of Italian opera approached its final resting place. Verdi's music became the life and breath of a new nation and is still acknowledged by many to be the crowning achievement of a venerable and glorious art form.

Verdi was born in 1813, in a tiny hamlet named Le Roncole, south of Parma. In those days the peninsula of Italy was divided into many little kingdoms, all ruled from afar as part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Verdi was only a baby during the Napoleonic campaigns, during which Parma passed back and forth between France and Austria. One of Verdi's earliest childhood memories was hiding in a church bell-tower with his mother while their town was being invaded by French troops.

The young man showed musical gifts at an early age. So Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy grocer from the nearby town of Busseto, took Verdi under his wing and paid for his schooling and music lessons. As a teenager, Verdi wrote for and conducted the Busseto Municipal Orchestra (not one of Italy's leading musical groups!) and played the organ in church every Sunday in Le Roncole. And when he had absorbed everything Busseto had to offer, Verdi married Barezzi's daughter Margherita and moved to Milan, the opera capital of the world, to continue his studies and try his hand at writing an opera. His first opera was a success. But Verdi's son, daughter, and finally his wife all died while he was working on his second opera, a comedy which (understandably) flopped. The composer sank into a black depression from which he never really emerged. He swore he would never write another note and lost interest in everything.

The general director of La Scala (the opera house in Milan) convinced Verdi to try his hand at a third opera, and in 1842 Verdi wrote Nabucco, the story of an arrogant Babylonian king who oppresses the captive nation of Israel. The audience at the premiere went berserk and Verdi became a celebrity overnight. To this day, all Italians can sing the familiar "Va, pensiero" chorus from Nabucco, which became the anthem of the struggle for Italian independence from Austria. The success of this opera catapulted Verdi back into the composer's seat. For the next ten years, he roamed around Italy and Europe, pouring out a string of about twenty operas. These operas are all improbable stories of wild passion set to vigorous and thrilling music. Almost all of them feature sympathetic nationalists toiling under foreign domination, and Italian audiences, still languishing under Austrian rule, readily identified with the characters and passions in Verdi's early operas. Over the years, Verdi became very good at outwitting government censors who objected to his presenting certain kinds of situations (chiefly the murder of kings) onstage.

At the end of his decade "in the galleys," as Verdi once called them, the thirty-seven year-old composer bought a farm near Busseto and moved there with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former opera singer whose voice had been ruined. The Verdi-Strepponi relationship (not a marriage) horrified the conservative Bussetans, especially if—as one biographer has suggested—the artistic couple gave a child up for adoption. (Strepponi had previously done so with several.) Verdi even ended up disowning his own parents and kicking them out of his house. As his family life was (for the second time) embroiled in catastrophe, Verdi penned three of the greatest operas of all time, all of which scrutinize tormented relationships between parents and children: Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.

Verdi lived near Busseto in his villa, called Sant'Agata, for the rest of his life, though he made frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Venice, Genoa (his favorite city in Italy), Paris, and places further abroad to oversee premieres of his operas. In 1861 he wrote the opera La forza del destino for St. Petersburg and spent two winters in Russia preparing the first performance. One of his greatest operas, Aida—set in ancient Egypt—received its world premiere in Cairo, not long after the opening of the Suez Canal.

When Italy finally united itself as a nation under King Victor Emmanuel II, Verdi was one of the first members of the Italian parliament. He demonstrated his patriotism again by writing a magnificent Requiem in honor of the important Italian novelist and patriot Alessandro Manzoni.

In his last twenty years, Verdi spent much of his time working on his farm. He also founded a retirement home for musicians in downtown Milan; to this day former opera singers and instrumentalists fill its halls. Verdi wrote only one opera in the 1880s and one in the 1890s: Otello and Falstaff, his greatest operas and the respective pinnacles of Italian tragic and comic opera.

The Music of Giuseppe Verdi...


Singable Tunes

From the day he exploded onto the Italian opera scene with "Va, pensiero," the chorus of the exiled Israelites in Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi was a composer known for his melodies. Verdi writes tunes, memorable ones, that caress the voice and linger in the memory. Almost everyone on the planet has heard Rigoletto's most famous aria, the tenor's "La donna è mobile." And many more will recognize famous melodies from La traviata, Il trovatore, Aida, and other Verdi operas. Even listeners to Verdi's underperformed early operas often experience a déjˆ vu, a sense of "Oh, so THAT'S where that tune is from." Un ballo in maschera contains countless great Verdi melodies linked by connecting music that propels the plot. Each melody carefully reflects the dramatic situation and the current mood of the character who sings it. Verdi wrote singable melodies with distinctive, inevitable shapes and terrific rhythmic vigor, melodies that are the lifeblood of his operas.

Chiaroscuro

In Ballo in maschera, more than in his other operas, Verdi plays light against dark, major against minor, comic against tragic. Although Ballo—like almost all of Verdi's other operas—ends in tragedy, it contains more comedy than the others, much music sparking with brightness and joy. Verdi was fascinated by Shakespeare, who loved to present both comedy and tragedy at once; and this is what Verdi does in Ballo. With the ever-frolicking Oscar and the gloomy Mlle. Arvedson as opposite poles of light and dark, Verdi lets Gustavus and the other characters sing music sometimes of vibrant joy, sometimes of gloom and sadness. Even Counts Ribbing and De Horn at one point trade their customary menacing "conspiracy" fugato music for an ironic "laughing" duet as they make fun of Anckarström. Like a great Shakespeare play, Ballo mixes comic and tragic and creates a fusion that is more true to life than either by itself.

The Love Duet

Un ballo in maschera features what is perhaps Verdi's greatest love scene. When Gustavus surprises Amelia near the gallows in the second act, they sing a magnificent duet for tenor and soprano with challenging music that explores everything these complicated characters are experiencing: remorse and regret, hesitation and awkwardness, guilt, frenzied excitement, tender yearning, romantic bliss, and wild sexual passion. The duet comes in two movements; the turning point happens when Amelia yields to Gustavus's plea and finally confesses her love, saying the magic word T'amo, "I love you." If she was hoping the word would make him leave her alone, she is disappointed: M'ami, he says again and again, "You love me," working himself up into a lather and propelling the duet into its second movement, featuring a jubilant new melody and a quicker tempo. First Gustavus sings the new melody, which Amelia finds so seductive and attractive she repeats it—and for the first time in the duet the lovers, now in sync, are singing the same music. Finally, she repeats her declaration of love: this time, all her hesitation is gone and she floods the opera house with a gorgeous outpouring of sound. The duet, at the very center of the opera, tumbles breathlessly to its conclusion—a conclusion that comes too soon, according to everyone but the exhausted singers.

Recommended Recordings

Votto (EMI Classics) with Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi
Abbado (Deutsche Gramophon) with Ricciarelli, Domingo, and Bruson

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