A Masked Ball and its many possible meanings

A Masked Ball photo: Michael Cooper

A Masked Ball
photo: Michael Cooper

To those who cannot sing, opera is a spellbinding miracle. Verdi’s generous canon on mostly melodramatic librettos provided to those who sing myriad opportunities to enchant the audiences, performance after performance, not only during Verdi’s successful career but also well into the second century after his death.

If the purpose of art is to be beautiful and the purpose of opera to give the audience beautiful singing, the performance on February 5 of Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto was a success and celebration. To hear the tenor Dimitri Pittas and his resplendent and nuanced voice was in itself worthy of attending this performance. The clarity and sheer power of Adriane Pieczonka’s voice is a different kind of beautiful, and maybe not the best match for the role of Amelia, but Ms. Pieczonka can sing anything with the piercing clarity of the voice she is gifted with.  

But the purpose of art is also to tell the truth, an eternal truth of a human condition regardless of time and space, culture or nationality. The directors Sergio Morabito and Jossi Wieler say that the story their Masked Ball explores is how fragile our identity can be, how quickly and suddenly a social position or a relationship that seems secure and steady can crumble down.

This production was originally made six years ago for Staatsoper Unter Den Linden Berlin. In their directors’ notes Mr. Morabito and Mr. Wieler remind us of the numerous censorship revisions required of Verdi which shifted the plot from the assassination of a Swedish King to a melodramatic story in Boston, Massachusetts.

Censorship remains also an eternal truth. From the explicit prohibition to show the killing of a Royal figure on stage in the time of Verdi’s Italy, it evolved into a modern-day invention of self-censorship. Embedded in the overreaching confidentiality and secrecy clauses that govern many contracts today, self-censorship is a shield for wrongdoing and a sword of prosecution against those who dare speak up. Choosing to say no to the power by giving priority to one’s moral values over the pragmatic “wisdom” of self-censorship has always been a bold act that could easily crumble down any life. One need not look further than to the global, earth-shaking case and fate of Edward Snowden.

The fragility of the human status and uncertainty of relationship and social position are presented today in much brighter colours by the daily news than by a six-year-old Berlin opera production now revived in Toronto. Monarchs of today have given up the power to govern the affairs of their realms, but are keen on the privileges that material wealth provides. Therefore their heads are targeted in corruption investigations rather than assassinations. Contemporary assassinations tend to revolve around those who actually have power to govern affairs of their realms.  Assassinations are rampant in Islamic countries like Pakistan, Libya and Iraq. And Syria shaping up as a strong next candidate.

A rather contemporary take on the matters of the fragility of the human status and self censorship, with several layers of intended and unintended meaning, can be seen on Youtube if you click here.   

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