Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

During its final week of the 2021-22 season the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featured several concert performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera conducted by Riccardo Muti. The cast of this Boston version of the opera included Francesco Meli as Riccardo, Joyce El-Khoury as Amelia, Luca Salsi as Renato, Yulia Matochkina as Ulrica, Damiana Mizzi as Oscar, Alfred Walker and Kevin Short as Samuel and Tom, Ricardo José Rivera as Silvano, Lunga Eric Hallam as a Judge, and Aaron Short as servant to Amelia. All but Messrs. Meli and Salsi made their debuts at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with these concerts.

The overture under Mr. Muti’s direction was indeed a lush and rhythmically satisfying prelude with melodies prefiguring arias and scenes in the opera. Tempos were brisk while the observance at key moments of rubato passages caused the orchestra to linger at significant intervals.

The first scene of the opera typifies the Verdian mix of aria and ensemble. At the same time this musical portraiture allows for the delineation of both character and plot. As Riccardo, colonial governor of Boston, Mr. Meli’s forthright tenor traces a melody with skill and a sense for legato, while the enthusiasm he applied can develop into a regularized forte level. The first aria and ensemble for Riccardo, “La rivedrà nell’estasi” (“When I see her, my soul will be in ecstasy”), in which he ponders his fascination for Amelia, introduces a conflict resolved tragically only at the close of the opera.

In his precautionary solo, “Alla vita che t’arride” (“Your life so rich in joy”), Mr. Salsi sang with satisfying legato as he attempts to warn Riccardo of potential treachery and also to remind his friend of political responsibilities. Salsi’s earnest timbre, aside from several overly flat pitches, suggested the loyalty, honesty, and caution so vital to the figure of Renato in this early scene. The announcement by the judge of an attempt to condemn the fortune-teller Ulrica prompts a defense by the page Oscaar. In this role Ms. Mizzi performed the aria “Difenderla vogl’io” (“I wish to defend her”) with a light, flexible voice, one that captured the spirit of the piece and surely goaded the curiosity already shown by Riccardo. As with the other soloists, the balance between voice and orchestra settled into place by the finish of her aria. The concluding ensemble in which Riccardo proposes a collective investigation of Ulrica’s lair, himself in the guise of a fisherman, was led by Muti with an exciting spirit of energy and anticipation.

The lengthy second scene of Act I, located in the “sorceress’s cavern,” is rightly dominated by the figure Ulrica. In this role, Ms. Matochkina’s singing is revelatory: her extensive vocal range is even, vocal projection is disciplined yet varied, and tonal colors suggest an ample spectrum of emotional possibilities. In her introductory evocation, “Re dell’abisso, affrettati” (“King of the depths, make haste”) Matochkina emitted deeply felt low pitches in her call to raise the spirit to assist her visions. In the second part of her aria the fortune-teller’s palpable excitement was evident on the words “E lui, è lui!” (“It is he, it is he!”). Here Matochkina used blazing top notes to celebrate her success before returning to the earlier low pitches while demanding within her cavern “Silenzio!”

In the balance of the scene Ulrica uses her enhanced powers to tell the fortune of or to dispense advice in succession to the fisherman Silvano, to Amelia, wife of Renato, and finally to the nobleman Riccardo. In each instance Matochkina assumed a vocal color appropriate to the nature of her revelation. In promising Silvano gold and position she attempted to reassure his disbelief. In her advice to Amelia to summon courage while plucking the herb of forgetfulness Matochkina seemed to challenge the tentative fears expressed in Ms. El-Khoury’s cautious entrance. Finally, the prediction of Riccardo’s death at the hand of a friend identified by a handshake is unleashed by the seeress with grim finality.

The horrific landscape required for Act II was depicted with dramatic intensity by the Orchestra. A flurry of emotions – fear, anticipation, audacity – were captured in El-Khoury’s measured approach to Amelia’s scene, “Ecco l’orrido campo” (“Here is the horrid field”). Her use of declamation, piano phrasing, and arching lines led into a climactic “Miserere.” When surprised by Riccardo at “Teco io sto” (“I am with you”) both singers shifted from dramatic ardor to lyrical softness while expressing their emotional bond in the duet. The final crescendo of their admission included a gasp of true emotional fervor on Meli’s part. Discovery of this private scene in a public venue brings about the ironic tragedy and misunderstandings of the final act.

In Act III the soloists portraying the married couple and the noble Riccardo were at their vocal best. In response to Renato’s transformed loyalties Amelia begs to be able to hold their child one last time. El-Khoury’s “Morrò ma prima in grazia” (“I shall die but first in kindness”) showed a dignified and heartfelt plea through controlled vibrato and lustrous top notes. When alone Renato considers Riccardo as his supposed adversary (“Eri tu” [“It was you”]). Here Salsi’s line trust in others. Once Riccardo is wounded and approaching death, Meli’s belated explanation was touchingly effective. Ultimately, the spirit of Ulrica’s warnings returns as a haunting conclusion.

Salvatore Calomino