Un Ballo in Maschera

Article by James Naughtie, 1996

I once saw a production of Un Ballo in Maschera in Verona, where thousands sit on the baking marble steps of the Roman amphitheatre to watch opera on the long summer nights. If Busby Berkeley had been an opera producer, this is where he would have plied his trade. Everything is a spectacle, it has to be. Even in intimate scenes they manage to effect grand settings. So as we prepared for the murder at the masked ball itself, half the amphitheatre exploded in light as the band struck up. The stage was as bright as a film set under the night sky. Yet it did not seem over the top. The melodramatic moment of assignation itself, the inevitable end signalled from the opera’s first scenes, required exactly that sense of climax. This is an opera with a big finish, not necessarily in numbers on stage, but in dramatic spirit.

The point is in the title itself. Verdi didn’t call it Gustavus 111 or (after the censors had done their work) Riccardo, Earl of Warwick. This is about the explosion of simmering violence in the familiar theatrical setting of a grand ball, so often used to capture the swirl of society and catch a moment of frozen drama in the throng. Musically, there aren’t longueurs in Ballo and Verdians have often quoted how compressed many of the great arias are, a brilliant concentration being their hallmark. Despite the king’s passion for Amelia, it is not of course a love story but the story of a murder. What will follow, after the ball, is not so much a matter of individual guilt or relief, but the kind of social fracture which would have been quite familiar to an audience of 1850’s Italy and which, of course, was the cause of the censor’s agitation.

No doubt the absurdity of the eventual relocation of the King’s murder to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is one of the reasons why Ballo has never settled alongside some other later Verdi operas in popularity, though tenors have always been happy to have it as one of their favourite showcases. There’s an awkwardness about the artificial changes which Verdi was forced to make after the censors took fright. The story of the assignation of a King was simply too ripe, at a time when someone had just thrown a bomb under Napoleon 111’s carriage in Paris. After absurd efforts to put it in Pomerania, and to throw it back several centuries, American was accepted as suitably distant and obscure. The result in our own time is that when it is sometimes returned quite properly to Sweden, the singers have to call each other Riccardo and Renato though we know (and are told) that they are Gustavus and Anckarstrom.

This production sensibly dispenses with that perennial awkwardness and banishes the memory of those nervous Neapolitans. This is Stockholm in 1792, the king is on his throne with plotters starting to move around him, and he calls his secretary Anckarstrom. He is a king, not a governor in a British colony. Apart from the relief for this clarity, there is a dramatic point. Verdi wanted this story because he was gripped by its force, and the power of its setting among real events in a real place. It helps when his intentions are respected. This isn’t a strange series of coincidences or bits of gossip from a faraway land, it is the retelling of that which happened, and the exploration of the characters behind a dramatic event at that, as every audience will have been expected to know, had repercussions.

Ballo is a notably direct piece of operatic theatre. Indeed its straightforwardness has sometimes been thought to be a dramatic weakness. The king is not a character who changes or grows in the course of the drama. He begins as a love struck, well-intentioned fellow; he ends with a dying declaration of love for his Amelia and a farewell wish for his people. He is not a bad soul, but nor does he seem to have learned a great deal in his tribulations. The real character at the heart of the opera is therefore Anckarstrom, around whom its two great dramatic moments turn – the discovery that it is Amelia who is under the veil in the gallows-field at midnight trying to find the magic herb, and the drawing of the lots which confirms the fortune-teller’s prediction that it would be the king’s secretary who would do the deed.

There are goose pimple scenes, and through them Anckarstrom changes and is changed by the relentless march of the events that pull him on. The king’s music is bold and clear and sometimes light-hearted (with Oscar the page giving it mellifluous decoration), but Anckarstrom’s has the darkness and torture you find in Verdi’s greatest baritone roles. It looks forward to the operas of his last years. When Anckarstrom breaks with his king and acknowledges to himself  that he has thrown all his lot in with the conspirators, his aria manages to compromise both his wild anger at the betrayal in love, with a moving expression of regret for the ideals which he believed had underpinned this reign, what the master Verdian Julian Budden had called “a deeply moving lament for a lost Eden.”

This is what elevates the story of the king’s mistress and her husband. Though much of the score is bright and energetic, even frisky, the darkness seeps through. By the familiar device of the fortune-teller and the fateful handshake with Anckarstrom after she tells her story, the whole world of the king’s court is seen to be a brew that can only produce disaster. And Anckarstrom understands what the king can’t: that the goodness which is inherent in the man he served had been turned by his love for Amelia into something which will not only destroy him, but also the hopes that he seemed to represent before he plunged into his affair. That is what gives the Act 11 duet much of its power and it provides the painful contrast at the opera’s climax between all the magnificence of the ball, a glittering moment in Camelot, and the bitter breach of friendship which can only end in death.

We’re back to the ball itself. This is not a domestic story, but a public one. These plots and jealousies are poisoning the court of a king who may be weak but is good rather than bad; the murder is a political assassination not the playing out of a feud between rivals in love. Anckarstrom has joined political conspirators to avenge the man who has stolen his wife. The ball is therefore not simply a device to wind up the story. As with the party at the beginning of La Traviata, it is the context in which the whole opera has been played out. The gaze of the crowd, the masks of deception, the excitement of social flirtation, the heady glamour of life at the centre. And in its midst, murder.

You can understand why the censors were so nasty to Verdi. But of course like censors almost everywhere in every age, they didn’t succeed. On the first night in Rome, the cry went up “Viva Verdi” – the composer’s name being taken up as a subversive acronym. V-E for Vittorio Emanuele, R-D-I for Re D’Italia. This was the Italy of the Risorgimento in full cry, and the slogan graced a thousand banners. It is not that Un Ballo in Maschera delivered some carefully-constructed political message; simply that it distilled the essential passions of love and politics into a potion that audiences couldn’t resist.

This is the Verdi who has still his Don Carlos, Aida, and Otello to come. At the ball, you are in the middle of an explosion of musical and dramatic energy.