Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
Un ballo in maschera
(English title: A Masked Ball)
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera in three act, by Verdi; words by Somma, based on Scribes libretto for Aubers opera, "Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué" (Gustavus III, or the Masked Ball). Produced, Apollo Theatre, Rome, February 17, 1859. Paris, Théâtre des Italiens, January 13, 1861. London, June 15, 1861. New York, February 11, 1861. Revivals, Metropolitan Opera House, N.Y., with Jean de Reszke, 1903; with Caruso, Eames, Homer, Scotti, Plancon, and Journet, February 6, 1905; with Caruso, Destinn, Matzenauer, Hempel, and Amato, November 22, 1913.
RICHARD, Count of Warwick and Governor of Boston (or Riccardo, Duke of Olivares and Governor of Naples)
REINHART (Renato), secretary to the Governor and husband of Amelia
SAMUEL, enemy of the Governor
TOM (Tommaso), enemy of the Governor
SILVAN, a sailor
OSCAR (Edgardo), a page
ULRICA, a negress astrologer
A judge, a servant of Amelia, populace, guards, etc., conspirators, maskers, and dancing couples.
Place: Boston, or Naples.
Time: Late seventeenth or middle eighteenth century.
The English libretto of "Un Ballo in Maschera," literally "A Masked Ball," but always called by us "The Masked Ball," has the following note:
"The scene of Verdis Ballo in Maschera was, by the author of the libretto, originally laid in one of the European cities. But the government censors objected to this, probably, because the plot contained the record of a successful conspiracy aganst an established prince or governor. By a change of scene to the distant, and, to the author, little known, city of Boston, in America, this difficulty seems to have been obviated. The fact should be borne in mind by Bostonians and others, who may be somewhat astonished at the events which are supposed to have taken place in the old Puritan city."
Certainly the events in "The Masked Ball" are amazing for the Boston of Puritan or any other time, and it was only through necessity that the scene of the opera was laid there. Now that political reasons for this no longer exist, it is usually played with the scene laid in Naples.
Auber produced, in 1833, an opera on a libretto by Scribe, entitled "Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué." Upon this Scribe libretto the book of "Un Ballo in Maschera" is based. Verdis opera was originally called "Gustavo III," and, like the Scribe-Auber work, was written around the assassination of Gustavus III, of Sweden, who, March 16, 1792, was shot in the back during a masked ball at Stockholm.
Verdi composed the work for the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, where it was to have been produced for the carnival of 1858. But January 14th of that year, and while the rehearsals were in progress, Felice Orsini, an Italian revolutionist, made his attempt on the life of Napoleon III. In consequence the authorities forbade the performance of a work dealing with the assassination of a king. The suggestion that Verdi adapt his music to an entirely different libretto was put aside by the composer, and the work was withdrawn, with the result that a revolution nearly broke out in Naples. People paraded the street, and by shouting "Viva Verdi!" proclaimed, under guise of the initials of the popular composers name, that they favoured the cause of a united Italy, with Victor Emanuel as King; viz.: Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy). Finally the censor in Rome suggested, as a way out of the difficulty, that the title of the opera be changed to "Un Ballo in Maschera" and the scene transferred to Boston. For however nervous the authorities were about having a king murdered on the stage, they regarded the assassination of an English governor in far-off America as a quite harmless diversion. So, indeed, it proved to be, the only excitement evinced by the audience of the Apollo Theatre, Rome, on the evening of February 18, 1859, being the result of its enthusiasm over the various musical numbers of the work, this enthusiasm not being at all dampened by the fact that, with the transfer to Boston, two of the conspirators, Samuel and Tommaso, became Negroes, and the astrologer who figures in the opera, a negress.
The sensible change of scene from Boston to Naples is said to have been initiated in Paris upon the instance of Mario, who "would never have consented to sing his ballad in the second act in short pantaloons, silk stockings, red dress, and big epaulettes of gold lace. He would never have been satisfied with the title of Earl of Warwick and the office of governor. He preferred to be a grandee of Spain, to call himself the Duke of Olivares, and to disguise himself as a Neapolitan fisherman, besides paying little attention to the strict accuracy of the role, but rather adapting it to his own gifts as an artist." The ballad referred to in this quotation undoubtedly is Richards barcarolle, "Di tu se fidele il flutto ma spetta" (Declare if the waves will faithfully bear me).
Act I. Reception hall in the Governors house. Richard, Earl of Warwick, is giving an audience. Oscar, a page, brings him the list of guests invited to a masked ball. Richard is especially delighted at seeing on it the name of Amelia, the wife of his secretary, Reinhart, although his conscience bitterly reproaches him for loving Amelia, for Reinhart is his most faithful friend, ever ready to defend him. The secretary also has discovered a conspiracy against his master; but as yet has been unable to learn the names of the conspirators.
At the audience a judge is announced, who brings for signature the sentence of banishment against an old fortune teller, the negress Ulrica. Oscar, however, intercedes for the old woman. Richard decides to visit her in disguise and test her powers of divination.
The scene changes to Ulricas hut, which Richard enters disguised as a fisherman. Without his knowledge, Amelia also comes to consult the negress. Concealed by a curtain he hears her ask for a magic herb to cure her of the love which she, a married woman, bears to Richard. The old woman tells her of such an herb, but Amelia must gather it herself at midnight in the place where stands the gibbet. Richard thus learns that she loves him, and of her purpose to be at the place of the gibbet at midnight. When she has gone be comes out of his concealment and has his fortune told. Ulrica predicts that he will die by the hand of a friend. The conspirators, who are in his retinue, whisper among themselves that they are discovered. "Who will be the slayer?" asks Richard, The answer is, "Whoever first shall shake your hand." At this moment Reinhart enters, greets his friend with a vigorous shake of the hand, and Richard laughs at the evil prophecy. His retinue and the populace rejoice with him.
Act II. Midnight, beside the gallows. Amelia, deeply veiled, comes to pluck the magic herb. Richard arrives to protect her. Amelia is unable to conceal her love for him. But who comes there? It is Reinhart. Concern for his master has called him to the spot. The conspirators are lying in wait for him nearby. Richard exacts form Reinhart a promise to escort back to the city the deeply veiled woman, without making an attempt to learn who she is, while he himself returns by an unfrequented path. Reinhart and his companion fall into the hands of the conspirators. The latter do not harm the secretary, but want at least to learn who the Governors sweetheart is. They lift the veil. Reinhart sees his own wife. Rage grips his soul. He bids the leaders of the conspiracy to meet with him at his house in the morning.
Act III. A study in Reinharts dwelling. For the disgrace he has suffered he intends to kill Amelia. Upon her plea she is allowed to embrace her son once more. He reflects that, after all, Richard is much the more guilty of the two. He refrains from killing her, but when he and the conspirators draw lots to determine who shall kill Richard, he calls her in, and, at his command, she draws a piece of paper from an urn. It bears her husbands name, drawn unwittingly by her to indicate the person who is to slay the man she loves. Partly to remove Amelias suspicions, Reinhart accepts the invitation to the masked ball which Oscar brings him, Richard, of course, knowing nothing of what has transpired.
In the brilliant crowd of maskers, the scene having changed to that of the masked ball, Reinhart learns from Oscar what disguise is worn by Richard. Amelia, who, with the eyes of apprehensive love, also has recognized Richard, implores him to flee the danger that threatens him. But Richard knows no fear. In order that the honour of his friend shall remain secure, he has determined to send him as an envoy to England, accompanied by his wife. Her, he tells Amelia, he will never see again. "Once more I bid thee farewell, for the last time, farewell."
"And thus receive thou my farewell!" exclaims Reinhart, stabbing him in the side.
With his last words Richard assures Reinhart of the guiltlessness of Amelia, and admonishes all to seek to avenge his death on no one.
It is hardly necessary to point out how astonishing these proceedings are when supposed to take place in Colonial Boston. Even the one episode of Richard, Earl of Warwick, singing a barcarolle in the hut of a negress who tells fortunes is so impossible that it affects the whole story with incredibility. But Naples -- well, anything will go there. In fact, as truth is stranger than fiction, we even can regard the events of "The Masked Ball" as occurring more naturally in an Italian city than in Stockholm, where the assassination of Gustavus III at a masquerade actually occurred.
Although the opera is a subject of only occasional revival, it contains a considerable amount of good music and a quintet of exceptional quality.
Early in the first act comes Richards solo, "La revedra nell stasi" (I shall again her face behold).
This is followed by the faithful Reinharts "Alla vita che tarride (To thy life with joy abounding), with horn solo.
Strikingly effective is Oscars song, in which the page vouches for the fortune teller. "Volta la terrea fronte alle stella" (Lift up thine earthly gaze to where the stars are shining).
In the scene in the fortune tellers hut are a trio for Amelia, Ulrica, and Richard, while the latter overhears Amelias welcome confession of love for himself, and Richards charming barcarolle addressed to the sorceress, a Neapolitan melody, "Di tu se fidele il flutto ma spetta" (Declare if the waves will faithfully bear me).
The quintet begins with Richards laughing disbelief in Ulricas prophecy regarding himself, "E scherzo od e follia" ("Tis an idle folly).
Concluding the scene is the chorus, in which, after the people have recognized Richard, they sing what has been called, " a kind of God Save the King tribute to his worth" -- "O figlio d Inghilterra" (O son of mighty England).
The second act opens with a beautiful air for Amelia, "Ma dall arido stelo divulsa" (From the stem, dry and withered, dissevered).
An impassioned duet occurs during the meeting at the place of the gibbet between Richard and Amelia: "O qual soave brivido" (Oh, what delightful ecstasies).
The act ends with a quartet for Amelia, Reinhart, Samuel, and Tom.
In the last act is Amelias touching supplication to her husband, in which "The weeping of the violoncello and the veiled key of E flat minor stretch to the last limits of grief this prayer of the wife and mother," -- "Morro, ma prima in grazia" (I die, but first in mercy).
"O dolcezze perdutte!" (O delights now lost for ever) sings her husband, in a musical inspiration prefaced by harp and flute.
During the masked ball there is a quintet for Amelia, Oscar, Reinhart, Samuel, and Tom, from which the sprightly butterfly allegro of Oscar, "Di che fulgor, che musiche" (What brilliant lights, what music gay) detaches itself, while later on the Page has a buoyant "tra-la-la" solo, beginning, in reply to Reinharts question concerning Richards disguise, "Saper vorreste, di che si veste" (Youd fain be hearing what mask hes wearing).
There is a colloquy between Richard and Amelia. Then the catastrophe.