This opera has a troubled history. It is based on a true story of the assassination of an 18th century Swedish king but the authorities in Rome in 1859 were nervous about a plot concerning regicide. Eventually, after much negotiation, Verdi amended the plot so that it was the 18th century governor of Boston who gets assassinated. This film, like most modern productions places the action in its original Swedish setting.
Maybe the frustrations of bringing this work into being had an effect on Verdi's creative process. It certainly does not contain his best music. Occasionally one hears echos of Aida or La Traviata but they only serve to underline the inferiority of Un Ballo in comparison with these works. Despite its origins in fact, the story lacks plausibility. Plácido Domingo plays King Gustavus as such a lovable monarch that it is difficult to see why most of his court is plotting against him. This lack of motivation is probably another result of the Roman censors' influence. There can be no suggestion of republican ideals behind the plotting, the motives have to be purely personal..
As we know from numerous other Verdi operas, a ridiculous plot can be made plausible by convincing characterisation. Neither Domingo nor Katia Ricciarelli, as Amelia manage to achieve this. One never quite believes that the king and his lover, having been caught by her husband should be so naïve as to meet again the next evening at the fateful masked ball. It's no surprise that Gustavus gets stabbed. Domingo then plays one of the most ludicrous death scenes I have ever seen, even in opera. He makes more comebacks than Frank Sinatra as he continually seems to expire and then stagger to his feet again for one last chorus This is a historic performance but, even by 1975 standards, the set is shabby, the video is fuzzy and the sound is indifferent. Domingo makes one of his earliest film appearances and I feel that neither his voice nor his acting quite attain the exalted standard that he reached during the 1980s and 1990s. Look out, however, for Reri Grist in the trouser role of Oscar, Gustavus's secretary. She steals every scene that she appears in.
Mrs G is at a conference in Belfast this week so, the night after I watched this, I was able to watch the 2001 La Scala film of the same opera. I was amazed at the difference and I retract all of my criticism of Verdi and most of my criticism of the opera. For more details see my review of Un Ballo in Maschera (2001).
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