Un Ballo In Maschera
Long Story Short
Happy-go-lucky king falls in love with the wife of his best friend and most trusted advisor. Love's passion is checked by duty while jealousy leads to conspiracy, betrayal, and murder at a masked ball.
Gustavus III is the young king of Sweden, playful and amorous.
Count Renato Anckarström, an older and far less giddy man, is his chief courtier.
Amelia Anckarström is Renato's wife and the mother of their son.
Mam'zelle Arvidson is a seer and fortune-teller who may be in league with Satan.
Oscar, a teenage boy whose voice has not yet broken, is a fun-loving page in Gustav's service. He is sung by a soprano.
Counts Ribbing and de Horn are Swedish noblemen and enemies of the king.
Christiano, a sailor, has done good service in the Swedish navy.
The Chief Justice is a superstitious Swedish judge.
Where and When?
In and near Stockholm, in the 1790s.
What's Going On?
Gustavus III is a bright, likeable king, beloved by most of his
subjectsbut not all. A handful of noblemen carry grudges
against their sovereign and are plotting his assassination. While
the king is aware of their conspiracy, he has yet to take action
against them. Instead he has been arranging opportunities to
indulge his love of deception and disguise.
Each of the opera's three acts features the king in disguise.
In the first act, the king disguises himself as a sailor in order
to spy on an accused witch. When his Chief Justice accuses Mlle.
Arvedson of being the bride of Satan, young Oscar jumps to her defense
and describes her as a popular and harmless person. Gustavus decides
to see for himself; he calls for the whole court to don disguises,
and they adjourn to her dwelling. She predicts good fortune for
Christiano, a loyal sailor in Gustavus's navy, and Gustavus sees
to it that her prophecy comes true. Then she reads the king's palm
and predicts that he will be killed by the next man who shakes
his hand. This man turns out to be Count Anckarström, who arrives
at that moment and thus did not hear the prophecy. But since Anckarström
is his best friend, the king laughs at the witch's prophecy and
decides that she is indeed harmless.
In the second act Gustavus again uses a disguise, this time because he
is pursuing a clandestine affair. He is in love with Anckarström's
wife, Amelia, and knows that she is trying hard to deny her own love
for him. At dead of night she goes to a field on the outskirts of town
where condemned prisoners are hanged. She means to gather the herb that
grows in the shadow of the gallows, an herb whichaccording to Mlle.
Arvidsoncan cure her guilty love. But Gustavus confronts her, declares
his passion for her, and persuades her to confess that she loves him.
No sooner has she done so than her husband is upon them; he has followed
the king, as have a gang of assassins, and Anckarström implores
Gustavus to flee. Gustavus makes Anckarstöm promise he will escort
Gustavus's (now veiled) lady-friend back to the city without looking at
her, and reluctantly leaves them. Moments later, however, the would-be
assassins catch up with Anckarström and the lady. When they unmask
her, they get a good laugha man keeping a midnight rendezvous beneath
the gallows with his own wife! And in surprise, anger, and sorrow
Anckarström realizes that his wife and the king have deceived him.
In the third act Gustavus uses yet another disguise because he is hosting a
magnificent masked ball. But Anckarström, now united with those plotting
the king's death, will penetrate this final disguise and be avenged on the man
who he believes has betrayed his trust.
Verdi and Censorship
For much of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as
Italy; the places where Giuseppe Verdi lived and created his operas
were a handful of small states and city-states mostly ruled from
faraway Vienna. The imperial Austrian government maintained its
tenuous control over its Italian holdings by exercising strict control
over any means by which large groups of people might communicate,
such as newspapers and theaters. Verdi, a great Italian patriot,
was constantly running afoul of governmental and religious censors
who objected to much of the action he wanted to portray onstage.
The censors had a field day with Un ballo in maschera. Originally
scheduled to be produced in Naples, the opera proved unacceptable
because it portrayed the successful assassination of a monarch.
Eventually Ballo was produced, but in Rome, two years later,
and with the oddest rewrite: it was set in Boston, in the 1600s,
where the governor (Count Riccardo) visits a black fortune-teller
named Ulrica, woos the wife of his friend Renato, and dies when
Renato falls in with two resentful murderers named Samuel and Tom.
Although the Boston setting makes nonsense of a carefully written
plot, it was in this version that Ballo attained worldwide
fame. Various productions have tried other settings, but the original
Swedish setting is preferable.
Origins of This Story...
The Real Gustavus III
Like many of Giuseppe Verdi's operas, Un ballo in maschera
is a tragedy, but a tragedy inspired by history. Gustavus III, king
of Sweden from 1771 to 1792, was indeed a popular young king: a
brave warrior who led his armies to victory against Prussia and
Russia; a poet whose reign saw a flowering of Swedish art and literature
(Gustavus built Sweden's first opera house and wrote the first Swedish
operas); and an attractive, indiscriminate lover with a sexual preference
for men. Gustavus, who had spent much of his youth in France, was
a model Enlightenment king: he opposed the French Revolution but
worked hard in Sweden to create an equitable state. In fact, enemies
he made by curbing the power of the aristocrats eventually killed
him, at that fatal masked ball at the Stockholm Opera House on March
16, 1792. It was a dispossessed naval officer, Captain Anckarström,
who shot the king with a gun filled with rusty nails. Gustavus suffered
greatly and died thirteen days later. Although the king pardoned
his assassins, Ribbing and De Horn were exiled and Anckarström
chopped to bits.
The Battle of Love and Duty
The crux of the opera's plot is the struggle within Gustavusand within Ameliabetween
the passion they feel for one another and their responsibilites, he to his close friend
and advisor, she to her husband. Amelia is the only character in the opera with no
historical source; she was invented by the great French playwright Eugène Scribe.
Her dilemma comes from hundreds of years of French theater, where the battle between
love and duty had inspired thousands of operas and plays over the years. Scribe, who
wrote some 400 plays and libretti during the decades he dominated French theater, added this
element to the story of the historical king of Sweden in his Bal Masqué, a
French opera of 1833. But Verdi thought he could do better, and collaborated with the
brilliant Italian poet Antonio Somma on their Ballo in maschera. Verdi's version, based
on Scribe's plot, has forever eclipsed the earlier versions.
Gustavus III was assassinated in the 1790s, toward the climax of what has become known as the
Enlightenment. These were the glory days of reason; the age of scientists such as Gabriel Fahrenheit,
Anders Celsius, and Benjamin Franklin, and a time when well-meaning Christians noticed that their
exciting new scientific method, the triumph of logic, brought established beliefs in faith and
religion into question. Gustavus himself, who grew up in France, was familiar with the great writers
and thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the opera he is a bright, likeable figure: a trickster who can
use disguises to outsmart his enemies; a skeptic who laughs at Mme. Arvidson and her superstitious
clients; and an enlightened monarch, not a tyrant, whose political motto is "Power is only worthy when,
without corruption, it dries the tears of its subjects." The real Gustavus, in fact, supported the
American colonies in their enlightened rejection of British tyranny.
Intellectual historians usually speak of the Enlightenment giving
way to the age of Romanticism. The trend is most visible in literature.
In the eighteenth century, satire was king, but in the nineteenth
century its place was usurped by gloomy stories about doomed young
love set in ruined castles full of ghosts. In Ballo in maschera,
Verdi (and Scribe) dramatize the struggle between these approaches
to life. Gustavus may laugh at Mme. Arvidson, but all her prophecies
come true. Either this opera tells the story of a man tryingand
failingto outwit fate and death itself; or, as in classic textbook
tragedy, the man's greatest enemy is inside himself. In the first
act, Gustavus outwits and defeats the illogical forces of faith
and superstition represented by the fortune-teller. But in the second
act, when he succumbs to the illogical force of passionate emotion
lurking in him, he mortally offends Anckarström and turns his
best friend into his assassin.
If Mlle. Arvidson is a figure for the dark, Dionysian forces that our bright
Apollonian King Gustavus is trying to deny, what about Oscar? Gustavus's
servant is a little ball of energetic fun who never slows down to think very
hard. In fact, it is he who dooms Gustavus by describing his final costume to
the murderous Anckarström. Oscar is in his element in the opera's final
scene, the costume ball (which he's been talking about since the first scene).
The real Gustavus was in fact killed at such a masked ball, a favorite pastime
of late eighteenth-century Europeans. Developing out of the pre-Lenten festival
of Mardi Gras, carnival became a way of life in some places, particularly Venice.
Carnival revellers would often dress up as characters from commedia dell'arte,
a sort-of live-action medieval Italian version of Looney Tunes. To this day you
can buy traditional carnival masks all over Venice. Gustavus was exposed to
carnival-style parties in Paris and encouraged them in Stockholm, where they
caught on with teenagers such as Oscar. Actually, the character of Oscar is Scribe's
nod at the real Gustavus's romantic interest in young menand Verdi's nod at the
many court jesters populating the plays of Verdi's favorite playwright,