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Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo’ a stunner for New Orleans

When Giuseppe Verdi composed “Un Ballo in Maschera,” the political climate was rife with Italian nationalism and those in the various provinces made calls for Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Sardinia, to be named the first king of a united Italy. Indeed, the composer’s very name was used as an acrostic by the angry mobs chanting “V.E.R.D.I.!” The acrostic stood for “Victor Emmanuel, Rei di Italia, or Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy.”

With its political intrigue and infighting, the subject matter contained in”Un Ballo in Maschera” was not a first choice for the Italian censors of the day. Even though the account was based on the historical assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden in the 17th Century, Verdi was forced to make the setting the colonial province of Boston. The fact that Sweden never had any colonies in Massachusetts didn’t matter to those in power. It was in America and far away from any hint of the sphere of European politics.

When New Orleans Opera Association artistic and executive director Robert Lyall decided to reset the current production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” in 19th Century New Orleans, it was an inspirational choice and no other Verdi masterpiece could be made as easily. With all of its lore as a center for Carnival festivities, a bal masque here is very commonplace and it makes for a fitting climax for the opera.

In the role of Riccardo, the governor, Paul Groves was magnificent. His voice was clear and precise and his acting chops were top notch. It is little wonder that he is enjoying such a wonderful career at the Metropolitan Opera and at the major opera houses in Europe. He is destined to be an opera star of the highest magnitude and will reside in the pantheon of New Orleans opera stars that went before him and those that are yet to come.

As Adela, Chiara Taigi was also marvelous. Although she only recently made her American debut, her performance should get several other opera houses interested in her repertoire, which consists of mostly Verdi heroines. Her voice was powerful, yet lilting at times and there are but a few who could have done as well in the role.

Gordon Hawkins was superb as Renato. His voice soared throughout the work and hung in the air laden with a richness that the role deserves. A special nod should also be given to local girl-turned-star Angela Mannino for her trouser role as Oscar, the page, as well as to Jill Grove for her inspirational work as Ulrica, a Marie Laveau-like voodoo priestess, whose prediction of political assassination for the governor is at first seen as implausible.

Kudos to director Matthew Lata and for the sets designed by G. Alan Rusnak. Excellent chorus work can be credited to the beautiful voices in the New Orleans Opera Chorus under the direction of Carol Rausch.

Un Ballo in Maschera” plays one last time on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available here or by calling 504-529-2278.