Un ballo in maschera, Opera by G. Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi must have been tearing his hair out as he battled with the censors over his opera, Un ballo in maschera. Despite by then being well-established, Verdi’s decision to base a work on the real-life assassination of a monarch, namely Gustav III of Sweden in 1792, was seen as a step too far.
Europe was living through turbulent times. And although Verdi sought to reflect the era he lived in rather than incite people to action, the authorities saw things rather differently. Twice Verdi had to change the setting for Un ballo in maschera, in the end removing the action to a fictional seventeenth-century Boston when America was still a British colony.
The Boston of Verdi’s day was notorious for the restrictions it placed on productions for the stage. The irony of setting Un ballo in maschera in the city, after the changes that had been demanded in his home country, would not have been lost on its first audience when the work was premiered, to great acclaim, at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 17 February 1859.
Riccardo, the governor of Verdi’s Boston, has made the fatal mistake of falling in love with Amelia, the wife of his secretary and best friend, Renato. Unaware of their affair, Renato warns Riccardo of his fears that unrest in the colony will threaten his position.
Riccardo pays a visit to Ulrica, a fortune teller. She predicts his murder and, even more chillingly, says that the next person to shake his hand will be his executioner. At that very moment, Renato appears. Both dismiss the prophecy, but subsequently Renato, just as he foils a plot to kill Riccardo, finds Amelia and the governor together. Enraged, he turns from confidant to conspirator and decides that Riccardo must die.
In a scene that is breathtaking in its cruelty, it is Amelia who is made to cast the lots that will decide who will end Riccardo's life: Samuel or Tom, leaders of the rebellion against the governor, or her husband, Renato. Just then, the three men receive an invitation to a masked ball, the perfect opportunity to carry out their desperate plan.
Verdi never allowed his frustration to affect the quality of his work; despite its tortuous evolution, Un ballo in maschera, as those who book to see it at the Gran Teatro la Fenice will discover, is amongst the composer’s very best operas and its grand duet, Riccardo and Amelia’s “Teco io sto...Gran Dio”, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful pieces of music he ever wrote.