Three Legendary Sopranos Play Verdi's Woman on the Verge

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Most women would be flattered to be loved by two men at once. But in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Amelia is at her wits' end. She’s a married woman with children who desperately wants to be faithful to her husband. But her heart belongs to her husband’s best friend, Riccardo, the Royal Governor of colonial Boston.**

In this edition of Opera in Brief, F. Paul Driscoll editor in chief of Opera News introduces us to three legendary sopranos in memorable performances of three decisive scenes from Verdi’s masterpiece.

F. Paul Driscoll with Midge Woolsey:

Maria Callas

“Amelia was a role in which Callas had a great deal of success,” said Driscoll, "but it was not something that figured as solidly in her repertoire as say Tosca...or Norma...or Lucia di Lammermoor. It is of course something that she sang brilliantly.”

“In Act I, the fortune teller Ulrica tells Amelia that her passion for her husband’s best friend can be cured if she goes to the scene of the public execution and gathers an herb. When Amelia makes her entrance in Act II in what’s called the 'Gallows aria,' she’s churning with an elicit passion for Riccardo. The particular color and quality of Callas’s voice gives you a real sense of Amelia’s anguish. You know that this is a noble woman who is faced with a very tough decision.”

Listen to Callas singing the aria “Ecco l’orrido campo”

Eileen Farrell

“To my knowledge Eileen Farrell never sang the role of Amelia on stage,” Driscoll continued. “But it was a glorious voice and nothing sounded difficult for her. I love a phrase in her autobiography that she co-wrote with Brian Kellow. When she was talking about how a voice of her size could handle all the rapid figuration, she said, "Well, I’m a big girl but I can still run up the stairs to catch a bus if I have to!"

"In Act II immediately after the Gallows aria, Riccardo surprises Amelia and there is what is called the ‘love duet’ where he gets her to admit that she loves him. There is a certain amount of joy in having the mutual love recognized. But this is sexual attraction and she certainly knows it’s the wrong thing for them to be doing.”

Listen to Farrell singing “Teco io sto…Oh, qual soave brivido” with tenor Richard Tucker

Elena Suliotis

“Suliotis sounded very much like Callas, and her career started at almost the very moment that Callas’s ended,” Driscoll explained. “She was a meteor. The career did not last very long. She sang with everything she had at every performance. And she was not always the most reliable or consistent singer. But when she delivered she had an incredible amount of emotional integrity.”

“This aria is addressed to Amelia’s husband Renato. We’ve seen the relationship between Amelia and the Governor transpire, and in 2012 terms it’s innocent. There are no motel rooms or parked cars in the back of some mansion. But she knows that she’s done wrong – that she’s been unfaithful in her heart. What she wants is to see her child before she’s given her punishment.”

Listen to Elena Suliotis singing “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”

When this aria is over, “the emotional balance of the relationship between husband and wife changes,” Driscoll told us. Renato realizes that it’s not Amelia’s fault and assigns the blame solely to the Governor.

That evening at the masked ball Amelia and the Governor choose honor over desire and renounce their love for one another. They agree to part forever. But Renato mortally wounds the Governor before learning the truth. In one final admirable gesture the Governor forgives everyone as he dies and says goodbye to his country and his friends.

** Note: F. Paul Driscoll reminds us that Verdi originally set out to write a piece which involved the King of Sweden, a Count and the Count’s wife. When Verdi ran into trouble with the censors, the location of the opera was moved to colonial era Boston and the King became the Royal Governor. The husband and wife remained a part of the plot but were no longer members of royalty. Both versions are performed today.


Ballo Bonus Performances

Shirley Verrett as Ulrica: "Contraltos love playing Ulrica the fortune teller because it’s a nice, short role," said Driscoll. "She’s done after Act I. They get to go home!

"Shirley Verrett in her best years could sing pretty much anything. She was an extraordinary artist and woman.” In this clip she sings “Re dell’abisso" 

Simon Keenlyside as Renato sings "Eri tu":