‘Viva Verdi’: Sense and Censorship in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera

Article by Katharine Camiller

The year is 1792, the setting the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. A masked ball, hosted by King Gustavus III is in full swing. In spite of his mask, the King is easily recognisable as a result of the silver Royal Order of the Seraphim star upon his costume and is approached by Captain Jacob Johan Anckarström, along with revolutionary co-conspirators Claes Fredrik Horn and Adolf Ribbing. Anckarström shoots the King at close range, using a pistol loaded with rusty nails to ensure that if the initial shot is not fatal, the wound will become gangrenous. The King dies thirteen agonising days later of an infection as a result of his injuries. Those interrogated for the murder include the famous medium of the time, Ulrica Arfvidsson, who is alleged to have predicted the King’s murder when he visited her anonymously some years earlier. Anckarström is executed, Ribbing and Horn are exiled.

The year is now 1857, the setting the San Carlo Opera in Naples. Verdi begins work on an opera based on Scribe’s libretto Gustave III ou Le Bal Masque, a dramatisation of the events that took place in Stockholm some 60 years earlier. Mindful of potential objections from the censors concerning the subject matter and following lengthy battles over previous operas, Verdi submits a prose synopsis of his version of the libretto written by Antonio Somma at the end of the year, expecting to have to make some minor changes to the location and specific character references. Yet this is a period of great political unrest and the censors react far stronger than Verdi anticipates. One of the King of Naples’ own soldiers had recently attempted to attack the King with his musket during a military review at Naples, and in January 1858, a bomb is thrown under the carriage of Napoleon III on his way to the Paris Opéra, putting the nerves of the authorities in Bourbon-ruled Naples on edge. In a letter to Somma in February 1858, Verdi writes:

‘I am drowning in a sea of troubles. It’s almost certain the censors will forbid our libretto… They began by objecting to certain phrases and words, and then entire scenes and finally the whole subject… So the subscribers won’t pay the last two installments, so the government will withdraw the subsidy, so the directors will sue everyone, and already threaten me with damages of 50,000 ducats. What hell!’

Changes demanded by the censors include omitting the ball altogether from the piece, making the murder take place off stage, and transforming Amelia from Ankarström’s wife into his sister so as to avoid all references to adultery. What hell indeed.

Eager to salvage the situation, the San Carlo management prepare an amended version of the libretto that meets with all the censor’s requirements, which is set in Florence in the 14th century and called Adelia degli Adimari, but Verdi refuses to accept these changes. Following threats of legal action from the theatre, an agreement is eventually reached between the composer and the management where Verdi is given permission to offer his controversial work to another theatre if he then returns to Naples later that year to produce Simon Boccanegra, which is yet to be staged in that city. Verdi immediately offers the opera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where the Papal censor accepts the libretto but on condition some alterations are made to the text and the piece is set in a non-European location. Verdi breaks the news to Somma:

‘Arm yourself with courage and patience… the censor has sent a list of all the lines he disapproves of. If on reading this, you feel a rush of blood to the head, lay it down and try it again after you have eaten and slept well… The lines and expressions deleted by the censor are numerous, but it could have been worse.’

Verdi and Somma move the setting to Boston at the time of the American War of Independence, the King is downgraded to a colonial governor of Massachusetts and the title of the piece is finalised: Un ballo in maschera. The two work tirelessly on the libretto over the coming months, with the censors making their final amendments towards the end of 1858, which Somma finds ‘nauseating’, according to Verdi in a letter to a friend. Finally, after two arduous years of battles with the censors, the opera is premiered on 17 February 1859, although Somma refuses to add his name to the printed libretto in protest against the censors. It is at this performance that Verdi’s name becomes synonymous not just with a battle for artistic freedom but with the Italian nationalists’ struggle for liberation from foreign (particularly Austrian) oppression and the unification of Italy: the Risorgimento.

By the end of the 1850s, Verdi had become a household name in more ways than one. His popularity as a composer had grown to the extent that operas such as Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata had become part of the core repertory in opera houses internationally. At the same time, political unrest in Italy continued as the Italian Risorgimento gained momentum. Perhaps unconsciously, Verdi’s choice of subject matter for his operas frequently reflected the political situation of the moment, providing an insight into his political persuasions. Take Simon Boccanegra, for example – an opera based on the 14th  century Doge of Genoa, whose vision had been the unification of Italy. The reverse is also true – following the defeat of the Italian uprisings of 1848-1849, Verdi became disheartened by the political situation in his country, and in his work he turned away from the more overtly political subjects of operas such as La battaglia di Legnano, choosing to favour the intimate, domestic settings of operas such as Luisa Miller and La traviata. Un ballo in maschera, with its topical (and highly controversial) subject matter is a perfect example of a work borne of its time. It is perhaps for this reason that Verdi so strongly desired for the piece to be staged, and why he persisted so resolutely with it in spite of the discouraging number of setbacks he suffered. It is also perhaps the reason that the Italian nationalists adopted Verdi as a national figure during the Risorgimento.  His name was used for a period as an acronym that represented Italian nationalistic aspirations: ‘Viva VERDI’ (‘Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia’ – Vittorio Emanuele II would become king of a united Italy in 1861), a slogan that is reported to have been shouted for the first time at the premiere of Un ballo in maschera, and also appeared as graffiti on walls across the country, on banners and in defiance against the Austrians in Northern Italy.

Verdi was keen to encourage associations with the nationalists and had already identified himself as a strong supporter of the Risorgimento as far back as 1847. At this time, he had met Giuseppe Mazzini, Italian nationalist and patriot and a driving force behind the Risorgimento. Verdi demonstrated his allegiance to the liberal uprisings and revolutions in Milan of 1848 by rushing back to Italy from Paris. He wrote to librettist Francesco Piave on the subject: ‘Honour to these heroes! Honour to all Italy, which in this moment is truly great! The hour of liberation has sounded… There must be only one music welcome to Italian ears in 1848. The music of the cannon!’ At the request of Mazzini, he even composed a patriotic anthem, Inno popolare, in December 1848. Mazzini intended this anthem for a chorus of unaccompanied male voices to be used as a national battle hymn for Italy, but Italian patriotic hymns were banned within a few months and the Inno popolare was never used.

And so, amidst this backdrop of revolutionary fervour and agitated censors, what sort of work did Verdi produce? It is perhaps unsurprising given this context that writer Gabriele D’Annunzio later describes Un ballo in maschera as ‘the most operatic of operas’. It is also a work that contains a skilful balance of comic and tragic elements and a bold spectrum of musical aspects that demonstrates a fusion of techniques. Verdi was not only bold with his choice of subject matter, but also with his musical approach. As Italy was undergoing revolutionary reform, so too was Verdi’s music: the traditional, grander forms of his earlier works were being broken down and adapted to a more intense and economical approach. Countless examples of this exist, and characters are associated with different styles of music for dramatic impact. Take the comic music of Oscar the page and Riccardo’s laughing aria, ‘È scherzo od è follia’ where he mocks the predictions of the fortune teller Madame Arvidson, whose music is deliberately melodramatic and dark. These passages contrast with some of the more intense moments in the piece such as the Act II love duet between Amelia, whose music is primarily Italianate in nature, and Riccardo, who sings in a number of styles and moves seamlessly between worlds. Even within this duet there is great variety as the mood switches between graceful lyricism and overwhelming passion as Riccardo convinces Amelia that their love is more important than her reputation. Again, music is used to heighten the dramatic tension in a similar method towards the end of the opera when Oscar brings Riccardo Amelia’s note warning him that an attempt will be made on his life that night at the ball. The courtly music from the ball that filters in from offstage is eventually overwhelmed by Riccardo’s love theme heard in his duet with Amelia in the previous act as he sings of his love for Amelia.

The success of Un ballo in maschera is shaped undoubtedly by a desire for liberation from the restrictions of the past and the unification of approaches. Within Verdi’s music, this is demonstrated by the merging of a formal style typical of his earlier works with a more subtle and concise approach; outside of his music, by the unification of Italy and liberation from foreign oppression through the Risorgimento. What better way to surmise Verdi’s outlook than with the words of the man himself: ‘I am a Liberal to the utmost degree without being a Red. I respect the liberty of others and I demand respect for my own.’

Katharine Camiller is Associate Producer for Korn/Ferry Opera Holland Park