Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil that befalls any opera character who succumbs to forbidden desires.
Unfortunately, as King Gustav III of Sweden learned, that prayer doesn’t always make things right, even when the character is innocent.
The story of the trials, tribulation and untimely demise of the king of Sweden unfolds amid the glorious music of Giuseppe Verdi in Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” The opera dramatizes the true-life assassination of King Gustav in a narrative in which the king’s love for his best friend’s wife leads to his murder.
Gustav, who ruled from 1771 to 1792, was a social progressive for his time. He legalized the practice of Catholicism and Judaism and enacted wide-ranging economic and social reforms, including the curtailment of torture and capital punishment.
The monarch was shot at a masked ball in 1792 and died of his wounds 13 days later. His dramatic story was the subject of several earlier plays and operas.
Verdi’s work opens the Opera’s “Season of Temptation” with two performances on Oct. 26 and Oct. 28 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Even though “A Masked Ball” is considered one the grandest of all grand operas, this production marks the first the company has performed it, according to Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director.
“Any Verdi opera requires amazing singers, a large orchestra and chorus, and elaborate costumes and scenery, so an opera company can only produce one every few years,” Smith says. “‘A Masked Ball’ is actually a favorite of many people in the opera world, but its sheer scale often puts it on a company’s wish list.”
Tackling the production’s artistic challenges is no easy feat, agrees Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain.
“The singing is opulent and extremely demanding, which makes the opera more difficult to produce, so it doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as ‘La Traviata’ or ‘Rigoletto,’” says DeMain, who also is artistic director and maestro for the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “But it is musically on a par with Verdi’s later operas like ‘Aida’ and ‘Don Carlo.’”
Filling the solo roles in the production are some of opera’s top talent, including some rising stars who will be making their Madison Opera debut, DeMain says.
“I’m hoping that we will be unveiling a major star in the making with our leading lady Alexandra LoBianco as Amelia, a soprano who has just recently moved into this big dramatic repertoire,” DeMain says. “Her voice is big, beautiful and able to go from thrilling fortissimos to ravishing pianissimi.
“And I think you will thrill to the sound of Jeniece Golbourne’s contralto chest sounds, which are ideal for the sorceress Ulrica,” he adds.
Veteran tenor William Joyner, who appeared as Old Galileo in last year’s production of “Galileo Galilei,” portrays King Gustav. Powerful baritone Hyung Yun, who last appeared as the title character in the opera’s “Eugene Onegin,” returns to the stage as Anckarstöm, Gustav’s best friend-cum-assassin.
“William Joyner has the requisite power and flexibility to sing this role with its extremes of vocal character, and there’s no question that Hyung Yun’s great baritone voice is on a rapid ascent as he takes on these heavier, more demanding roles,” DeMain says.
Verdi’s 1859 opera began its production history on a controversial note. Censors in Italy and France opposed the original version for depicting the murder of a monarch on stage.
“Verdi’s ultimate solution was to make the subject a count rather than a king and move the setting to Boston during the colonial period,” DeMain explains. “This weakened the effect of the opulent backdrop of the Swedish court, but finally passed muster with the censors. Today, productions often restore the setting to Sweden and the real characters that prompted the libretto in the first place.”
Madison Opera’s production restores the opulence, featuring scenery designed by R. Keith Brumley and costumes by Suzanne Mess. Maestro DeMain will conduct members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Audience members interested in greater insights into the work can participate in discussions before and after each of the two performances. A preview discussion scheduled for 1 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the UW-Madison Biochemistry Building, Room 1125, will offer insights and behind-the-scenes perspectives by Smith, DeMain and members of the cast.
“A Masked Ball” is the perfect production to launch a “Season of Temptation,” Smith says, because King Gustav does not give into the temptations that might require him to sacrifice his crown. The characters in the season’s remaining two operas are not quite so well-behaved.
“The characters in Handel’s ‘Acis and Galatea’ and Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ do not resist temptation,” says Smith. “Don Giovanni, in particular, indulges in every temptation that comes his way, to an exciting and slightly dangerous effect.”
Madison Opera Season at a Glance
Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” – Oct. 26, Oct. 28
Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” – Jan. 10-13
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” – April 26, April 28