I'm always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. Like those operas, Un Ballo in Maschera ("A Melodrama in 3 Acts") has the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what's a Verdi opera without an exclamation of "Vendetta!" somewhere in it?), blood-and-thunder rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What it lacks in sophistication - certainly when compared to subsequent Verdi operas - it makes up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment.
Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. Un Ballo in Maschera is set however in America, where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts, is being plotted against by conspirators, his death at the hand of a friend foretold by a fortune-teller. You don't need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato's wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. "Heavens, my husband!", exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed ("Vendetta!") at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? "Death!", of course.
Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it's firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It's hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that's what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There's no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that's certainly the case here.
This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks - LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 - are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.