Verdi at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv: ‘A Masked Ball’ unmasked

Israel Opera presents Verdi’s dark tale of political intrigue and forbidden love.

Israel Opera production of Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball.’  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Israel Opera production of Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball.’
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

It would be nice to live in a world where the arts and creative exploits are immune to extraneous disruptive activity, but sadly that is not always the case. And we are not just talking about contemporary times here.

When Verdi’s A Masked Ball opera was released to the world in 1859, it was quite a different work from the one on which the composer, and the librettist Antonio Somma, started out two years previously.
Between tomorrow (January 20) until February 1 local opera lovers will be able to enjoy the revised fruits of the composer and librettist’s labors at 11 performances of The Masked Ball at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv.
Somma’s libretto for A Masked Ball – aka Un ballo in maschera – was based on the five-act libretto which playwright Eugène Scribe wrote for Daniel Auber’s 1833 opera, Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué. Scribe wrote about the assassination in 1792, of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was killed as the result of a political conspiracy. He was shot while attending a masked ball and died 13 days later.
Both Somma and Verdi were highly enthused about the original storyline, but things did not pan out exactly as they wished and the libretto had to undergo a series of fundamental changes in to be considered palatable for the general public.
Somma’s libretto, called Gustavo III, was presented to the censors in Naples in late 1857. Soon after, Verdi notified Somma that objections had been raised and revisions demanded by the censors, the most significant of which was the refusal to allow the depiction of a king on the stage, and especially his murder.
The situation was further complicated when, on January 14, 1858, three Italians attempted to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III in Paris, an event which was to affect the opera’s production.
In fact, Verdi had been through all this a few years earlier, when he was forced to introduce changes to Rigoletto and, this time, new character names and titles were proposed whereby the King of Sweden became the Duke of Pomerania and Jacob Johan Anckarström, who committed the dastardly regicidal deed, became Count Renato. Even the location was changed, and was moved from Stockholm to Stettin, today in Poland and which was under Swedish control for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The operatic plot was subsequently further tweaked so that it became based in Boston, USA, with a completely different set of characters.
“When they tried to kill Napoleon III, what was in the libretto described exactly what was happening in Europe at that time, so they decided to put it in Boston, you know, something very far from Europe. It’s America and we are not talking about kings, and changing the era. That was safer,” explains Michal Znaniecki, director of the current production at the Israeli Opera House.
While the original storyline underwent a transformation or two, Znaniecki adopted a more conventional approach to the aesthetic presentation of the work. “I did not want to tell a fairy tale in a contemporary way. I do not have the performers wearing jeans, because it is not about that. The opera [theme] is so universal that it is always speaking about us, but we have costumes and we have uniforms everywhere, so I think people from every country and every audience can understand that we are talking about a dictator, and we are concentrating on the political part of Un ballo in maschera.”
While eschewing the contemporary visual approach, Znaniecki says the message of the opera is very much a here-and-now theme.
“Verdi normally changed the epoch [in his operas], but this time he just moved the story outside Europe. When Verdi did La Traviatta, he was talking about the problem – the choice of love and power, about a dictator, and it was not important [whether] it was set in the present or two centuries before.
So it was not so historical. I think this opera is so universal. It is not so necessary to know if we are talking about a war in Europe or America or Israel, it can be anywhere.”
Znaniecki says the subtext to the opera is clear for all to see and hear, and for the participants to follow.
“There is a clear logic to the opera,” notes the director. “We are talking about the rise and fall of a dictator.
That’s also clear for the singers, and they can follow that easily. They know it’s not just about I accept my love or I don’t accept my love, and it not so much that every scene has a different emotion. I think it works.”
Znaniecki has been around the block several times before with A Masked Ball, and has had plenty of time to consider how he wanted to present the work to Israeli audiences.
“I have done Un ballo in maschera five times before, in different countries and places – even once in a stadium,” he recalls. “I always chose a completely different way of reading the story. You can concentrate on love, or on friendship. For the Israeli production I decided I wanted to concentrate on Ricardo, and why everyone hates Ricardo.”
The gent in question is the Earl of Warwick, governor of Boston, who is killed by Renato. The latter is the governor’s best friend, whose wife serves as Ricardo’s secretary but is also coveted by the governor.
“Ricardo seems so nice,” continues Znaniecki. “He has such a lovely tenor voice and his arias are beautiful. Everyone loves him and everyone wants to kill him. I wanted to see why that was. So that led me to the idea of the dictator who may seem so nice but, in real life, is dangerous. For me that was the key to the interpretation of this production.”
The conductor’s duties for the current venture are shared by Daniele Callegari from Italy and Eithan Schmeisser, with Swiss-born Luigi Scoglio and Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts graduate Joanna Medynska responsible for set design and costume design respectively. Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev and Romanian singer play the role of Ricardo, while baritones Boaz Daniel and Ionut Pascu from Romania sing the part of Renato.
The role of Renato’s wife Amelia is performed by sopranos Ira Bertman and Romanian-born Israeli Mirela Gradinaru.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and