Un Ballo in Maschera | Giuseppe Verdi
A troubled genesis
Un Ballo in Maschera is arguably one of most popular opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Yet it had the most troubled genesis.
Written for the San Carlo in Naples and never performed there
Un Ballo in Maschera was originally composed to be staged in Naples as the last new opera written under the contract between the Teatro San Carlo and Verdi but was never performed there. The major changes imposed by the Bourbon censorship to the composer convinced Verdi to premiere it in Rome instead. Even the Papal censorship in 1859 allowed him more freedom than that of the Bourbons’.
Last (missed) opportunity for a Verdi’s “King Lear”
Initially, Verdi had suggested to the San Carlo management another subject: King Lear by William Shakespeare, a long-term project that this time seemed to finally have found a right opportunity. But a new problem came up. To stage King Lear 2 or 3 strong soloists were not enough: 5 at least were needed and the San Carlo couldn’t provide them. These circumstances convinced Verdi, after over 15 years, to finally abandon the project of staging a music version of King Lear.
Verdi & Shakespeare
Verdi was a great admirer of the works of Shakespeare. He believed he shared many ideals with the English playwright, as, he stated, was clearly showed by his works. Some of those ideas are clearly outlined in the correspondence with Antonio Somma about King Lear (Verdi was reluctant in putting in writing his composition ideas – one of the many differences between him and Wagner).
His similarities with Shakespeare, according to Verdi
The major similarity with Shakespeare, according to Verdi, laid in the great importance he attributed to the words and the nuances of the (Italian) language, that the composer aimed to translate into music.
The others are effetto and varietà effectiveness and variety, considered the most important elements of a composition. Monotony for Verdi is nothing less than a capital sin.
A new subject for the San Carlo: Gustave ou Le Bal masqué by Scribe
To fulfill his contract with the San Carlo theater Verdi then proposed, after a long search and instead of King Lear, a play by Scribe: Gustave ou Le Bal masqué. The play had been already set successfully on music by French composer Auber’s and premiered at the Paris Opera over 20 years before (in 1833), remaining in the repertory until 1859. The story revolves around the murder of Gustav III, King of Sweden, at a masked ball in 1792.
A risky subject
The assassination of a head of state was yet a risky subject especially in reactionary Naples. Verdi had worked substantially on the play, shortening by almost a half Scribe’s version, before passing it on to librettist Somma. The opera was almost completed when the San Carlo informed Verdi that the censor had refused to pass the libretto unless many major changes were made. The censor demanded the following changes:
the action had to be moved outside Europe and preferibly in the Middle ages; the lovers should under no circumstances be married; a murder on stage was completely out of question.
The break up
Verdi agreed to some changes and presented a rework of the libretto under a new title: “Una vendetta in dominio” turning the king in a “Duke of Pomerania” and setting the action a century back.
But after the assassination by Felice Orsini of Napoleon III, on January 13 1858, the work was once again deemed unfit. The management of the San Carlo went as far as hiring a librettist to independently make major changes to the text.
It was then that Verdi decided to bring the contract to an end. The case ended in court. After months they two parts came to an agreement: the direction recanted the allegations and in return, Verdi agreed to stage at the San Carlo another of his operas, Simon Boccanegra.
In Rome the premiere of Il Ballo in Maschera
Verdi, eager to stage the new opera with as few changes as possible and as close to Naples he could, to make his point against the Neapolitan censors, offered his new work to the Teatro Apollo in Rome.
The Papal censors listed a series of changes that Somma had yet to make. The action was moved to the politically correct Boston, the Swedish king became a British governor and the title from the original “Una vendetta in dominio” became Un ballo in maschera.
The lack of political ideals
Verdi didn’t object too much to these changes. Time and place, he felt, were not so crucial in this opera whilst politics just a secondary theme. In his opinion, the conspirators had personal rather than political reasons for their actions. Even the death of the governor was, from his point of view, the result of a mere error.
The idea the opera aims to express indeed is for Verdi the very lack of political ideals.
In a faceless society, well represented in the glittering trappings of the masked ball, socializing can only happen through a mask. This is showed for instance in the way Oscar’s joyful song is interwoven with the conspirator’s theme. This very theme doesn’t have the political charge of Verdi’s first operas. It’s a way more superficial and empty melody.
At the contrary, the theme sung by the fortune-teller Ulrica is far more powerful, as if, in a world of deception, the truth laid in the gypsy’s world of magic rather than that of the so-called “polite society”.
The fine line between comic and tragic
The alternation of tragedy and comedy is the hallmark of this opera. There’s a strong emphasis in describing the psychological traits of the three protagonists: Riccardo Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston; Renato, Amelia’s husband, his strongest supporter; Amelia who loves and is loved by Riccardo.
Neither the close bonds of marriage nor friendship can protect any of the characters from treachery and betrayal. A friend can turn into a murderer if he believes himself deceived. Amelia goes in search of a herb for protecting herself from her true feelings and meets instead with the specters of her fear, Riccardo.
Katia Ricciarelli talks about Amelia’s role (1980)
The chorus at the beginning suggests that Riccardo is living a dream. This is showed in the way the theme sung by the choir clashes with the conspirators’ motif which is heard at the same time.
Riccardo, a political leader, accepts the ambiguous homage of this choir song in an unrealistic light-hearted manner. People express they trust in him as their political leader, as they believe their well-being is at th center of his thoughts. Riccardo instead has only one thing in his mind: Amelia!
Also ambiguous is the following scene, in which Riccardo in disguise pays a visit to the gypsy fortune-teller, where the music expresses the clash between his swinging moods and forced jollity with the melancholy of his singing often in minor mode.
The lover’s duet in the second act is a central point of Un ballo. The music creates the ultimate expression of a sensual and idealistic love. In its perfect alchemy, it is able to describe an insatiable desire that cannot have a place in the real world.
Luciano Pavarotti talks about Riccardo’s role (1980).
Courtiers await an audience with Riccardo, earl of Warwick and Governor of Boston (King Gustavo III), including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing (Tom and Samuel), in the meeting room at the royal mansion (Royal Palace in Stockholm, 1792).
As Riccardo enters his young ensign Oscar gives him the list of the guests for the forthcoming masked ball, in which is listed also Amelia, wife of his secretary and close friend Renato (Anckarström), he secretly fell in love for. Left alone, Renato warns him of a conspiracy against him.
Riccardo decides to ignores the threat. A magistrate arrives with a decree banishing the fortune-teller Ulrica who has been accused of witchcraft. When Riccardo asks Oscar’s opinions he counsels tolerance and describes her skills at fortune-telling. Deciding to see for himself, Riccardo arranges for his court to pay an incognito visit to Ulrica.
Scene 2: Ulrica, the fortune teller at Boston harbour
In a warehouse at the port, Ulrica summoned the devile before a group of women.
As Riccardo arrives in disguise, Ulrica sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who comes seeking release from her fatal love for Riccardo. Ulrica tells her that she must pick a magic herb at night by the gallows. Riccardo decides to follow Amelia there.
Amelia leaves when Oscar and other members of the court enter along with Riccardo, still incognito, who asks Ulrica to read his palm.She reveals that he will die by the hand of a friend. Riccardo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the assassin. Ulrica replies that it will be the first person who will shake his hand. Riccardo clasps Renato’s hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Renato is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers Riccardo as the conspirators grumble about their discontent.
Act II – Amelia
Amelia arrives by the gloomy gallows to search for the magic herb suggested by Ulrica. When Riccardo appears, she asks him to leave, but unable to resist his ardent words Amelia confesses she loves him. In the same moment her husband Renato rushes in to warn Riccardo to flee because assassins have followed him there. He immediately realizes what is going on between the two.
Scene 1: The study in Renato’s house
Renato tells Amelia of his intention to kill her. She asks to see her young son before dying. After she has left Renato exclaims that is it the governor/king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia. Samuel and Tom arrive and they altogether agree they will assassinate Riccardo. When Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball, the conspirators welcome this chance to execute their plan.
Scene 2: The Governor study
Riccardo alone in his study resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Renato to England.
Scene 3: The Masked Ball
In the ballroom, Renato tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively but finally reveals Renato’s disguise. Amelia and Renato meet. She warns him but Renato refuses to leave, declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her and the husband away. As the lovers say goodbye, Renato stabs the Governor. The dying Renato forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Renato that his wife is innocent. While he dies the crowd praises his goodness and generosity.
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