Few, if any, operas can bear comparison with the gestation, preparation and final execution of Giuseppe Verdi’s "Un Ballo in Maschera." It is the work that definitively closes his middle period; preceded by "Traviata," "Rigoletto," and "Il Trovatore" and followed by his supreme masterworks "Don Carlo," "Aida," "Otello" and "Falstaff."
Verdi’s intention was to write a King Lear -- and who hasn't -- but like many others, he never did. He was aware of the historical drama based on the real life and death of the Swedish monarch Gustav III (1746-1792), a story that offered so many dramatic moments in which music could add to the power of the drama.
A monarch both loved and detested, a conspiracy that leads to an assassination for which lots are drawn to decide by what particular hand he is to fall, and finally, amid the splendor of a masked ball, the murder takes place. There remained only a romance, which the libretto created for good measure with the imaginary figure of Amelia, and a possible affair between the woman and the king. The libretto was written and the music flowed.
Verdi had fought many battles with the censor before and suspected he might have to again. This time he thought he was prepared, until history intervened and changed everything. In a real assassination attempt, three Italians attacked Emperor Napoleon III. The subject was suddenly too incendiary and the composer once again removed the problem by changing locales, titles and names. The opera setting was moved from Sweden to Stettin, Gustav became a Duke of Pomerania and varying time frames and geographies were later proposed as if to say, "You can’t get far enough from the present day."
There was the hope of moving the opera premiere from Naples (who originally commissioned it) to Rome, where the play upon which the opera was based had been performed. Verdi, incredibly, was informed that this would be fine for drama but not for opera. There followed a court battle and eventually an agreement. The setting would be America in colonial times, Boston in the 17th century! The King became a governor and Verdi at this point simply gave up and agreed, wanting the whole matter to end. The original librettist asked to be simply listed as anonymous, as it was so remote from Antonio Sommo’s original conception.
Everyone was primed to fail, but instead the power of the music and drama carried the day, and it remains one of Verdi’s most popular works. The original inspiration proved indestructible. The imaginary triangle of Amelia, her husband Renato (one of the governor’s most trusted men) and his mistaken belief that Riccardo, Count of Warwick, and his wife are lovers is one of the composers most poignant stories.
Thrown in for good measure is the elegant courtier, Oscar, one of the most beloved trouser roles in all of opera. And finally there is the fortune teller Ulrica, who would go down in modern opera history with Marian Anderson breaking the color line at the MET in that role almost a century later in 1955.
Please tune in at noon for the return of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast this Saturday for Verdi’s "A Masked Ball" which begins the bicentenary of Verdi (1813-2013) on KPAC and KTXI.