Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.
The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball.
When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!
Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re D’Italia as King.
It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!
Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.
Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.
In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.
But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.
Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.
Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.
Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.
I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!
For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.
This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!
Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.