Un ballo in maschera, Opera by G. Verdi
Un ballo in maschera is another one of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘middle-period’ operas where he steadfastly chips away at stiff musical conventions and instead delivers a dynamic and compositionally avant-garde stage work that has retained its staying power through the years. Audiences in Prague will be able to experience all the qualities that make the opera a staple in the global repertoire.
Despite its lasting success, Un ballo in maschera (or A Masked Ball) was very controversial at the time of its conception, and Verdi encountered numerous difficulties in bringing it to the stage. Originally commissioned by Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the composer picked the assassination of the Swedish King Gustav III as his subject. The Neapolitan censors were so averse to the idea of a monarch’s killing that Verdi had to move the project to Rome instead.
The censors of the Vatican, however, were not kinder, so Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma had no choice but to migrate the action to the United States and invent the position of ‘governor of Boston’ for the opera’s protagonist. Only then could Un ballo in maschera see the limelight. When it did – on 17 February 1859 in Rome’s Teatro Apollo – it was a tremendous hit.
The plot of Un ballo in maschera combines political intrigue with a love triangle. Boston’s governor Riccardo is in love with Amelia, the wife of his faithful secretary Renato. During a chance encounter at the fortune-teller Ulrica’s hut, Riccardo finds out Amelia also loves him. By another coincidence, Renato learns of his wife’s wayward feelings and, blinded by jealousy and betrayal, decides to join the assassination plot against the governor.
The murder is to happen at Riccardo’s masked ball, a perfect opportunity for the conspirators. Renato carries out his mission, but with his last breaths, Riccardo apologises for his wrongful feelings for Amelia and hands his secretary an order for the family’s relocation to England where they can restart their lives. Remorseful, Renato joins the crowd in mourning the death of their kind and generous ruler.
Un ballo in maschera is a fantastic example of Verdi’s mastery of orchestration that engages the plot and the characters directly, be it through recurrent motifs or clever counterpoints. Among many short but memorable arias, it features a single duet – Riccardo and Amelia’s love confessional ‘T’amo, si, t’amo’ – that is one of the opera’s highlights.