Exiled to Boston: Verdi's 'A Masked Ball'

From the Maggio Musicale

WHO'S WHO?

  • Ramon Vargas .......... Riccardo
  • Roberto Frontali ......... Renato
  • Violeta Urmana .......... Amelia
  • Elena Zaremba .......... Ulrica
  • Donata D'Annuzio Lombardi ... Oscar
  • Carlo Striuli ..................... Sam
  • Duccio dal Monte ............ Tom
  • Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus
  • Daniel Oren, conductor

Musical Highlights

In the Act Three aria "Eri tu" — "It Was You" — Renato is first outraged that Amelia has been found with Riccardo, then despondent that he's lost her love.

In Act Two, Amelia thinks she's found a special herb that will rid her of her illicit love for Riccardo — but in the aria "Ma dall'arido ..." she hesitates to pick it, not wanting to lose her passion.

Maggio Musicale's 'A Masked Ball'

Renato (Roberto Frontali, left) looks down at his fallen enemy Riccardo (Ramon Vargas), in the Maggio Musicale production of A Masked Ball. hide caption

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Beginning in the late 1800's with a crusading committee known as the Watch and Ward Society, Boston became known as a place where it paid to watch one's moral "P's and Q's." The Society railed against what they regarded as offensive literature and entertainment — ranging from Voltaire to Walt Whitman — and the phrase "Banned in Boston" became so familiar that savvy publishers began using it as a marketing tool.

All of that makes the history of Giuseppe Verdi's once-controversial opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) seem more than a little bit ironic.

Verdi composed the opera in the late 1850's using a libretto called "Gustave III." The story was based on the real-life assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden, in 1792, and the opera was prepared for its premiere in Naples.

But the censors frowned on the depiction of a king being assassinated in his own court. They also took a dim view of Verdi's major addition to the story: In the opera, the assassin is an aggrieved husband who finds his wife alone with the king, and in a compromising position.

The censors banned the opera, pending some drastic changes. They said the king had to become a mere duke. The story had to be reset to take place hundreds of years earlier. And the woman this duke fell for couldn't be his best friend's wife. Instead, she would be the friend's unmarried sister. Fed up with the Neopolitan demands, Verdi decided to move the opera's debut to Rome, but the Roman censors also frowned on the piece.

So, to get the opera to the stage, Verdi and his librettist decided to keep their story but change the setting. The opera's hero became an English count, serving as a colonial governor, and the whole story was moved across the Atlantic to Boston. Apparently, when set in the new world, illicit love and murder were perfectly acceptable — and the censors' ban was promptly lifted.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance of A Masked Ball from one of Italy's oldest, ongoing music festivals, the Maggio Musicale in Florence. The festival performs in the city's historic Teatro Communale, which dates to 1862 — just three years after the Rome premiere of Verdi's opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'A Masked Ball'

Ramon Vargas and Violeta Urmana

Riccardo and Amelia (played by Ramon Vargas and Violeta Urmana) struggle with the dangers of their illicit love, in the second act of A Masked Ball. hide caption

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ACT ONE: The opera begins in the residence of Riccardo, the governor of Boston. Right off the bat, there's conflict. Simultaneously, in two contrasting choruses, a group of nobles praises Riccardo, while some of his deputies denounce him. Renato, the governor's closest friend, warns him about the dangers of the discontent. Riccardo is confident the people will support him. Still, he has a more personal problem that may cause even more trouble. Riccardo is secretly in love with Renato's wife, Amelia.

A judge appeals to the governor, requesting the deportation of Ulrica, a local fortune teller. He's afraid that her predictions may cause unrest among the commoners. Oscar, a page, defends Ulrica. He says Riccardo should pay a visit to the fortune teller, and see for himself.

The next scene is in Ulrica's home. People are gathered, and she predicts that a certain young sailor will soon become an officer. Riccardo is there in disguise. He promptly hands the sailor a handwritten note, promoting him.

Amelia then arrives for a private consultation with Ulrica. The fortune teller sends everyone away, but Riccardo hides in a corner to eavesdrop. Amelia wants some advice on her love life. She says she's loyal to Renato, her husband, but she's actually in love with Riccardo, and is suffering from her unfulfilled passsion — not to mention a guilty conscience. Ulrica tells Amelia about a special herb, growing in only one place in the forest, that will cure her feelings. To himself, Riccardo vows to follow Amelia to the forest, and confront her in private.

When everyone returns, Riccardo, still in disguise, wants Ulrica to tell his fortune, too. She says he'll soon be killed, and that the murderer will be next man who takes his hand. At that, Renato enters, and shakes hands with Riccardo. Riccardo reveals his identity, and declares that the fortune teller is obviously a fraud — Renato is his best friend, and would never threaten him. The words of his little speech are cheerful, but Verdi sets them to ominous music. Then the young sailor returns and announces his promotion. The people congratulate him, and salute their governor for his generosity.

ACT TWO: Following Ulrica's advice, Amelia has come to a lonely place in the forest, looking for the herb that will end her troublesome feelings for Riccardo. As he planned, Riccardo has followed, and confronts her. He openly declares his love, and she admits that she loves him as well.

Amelia is wearing a veil, so when her husband Renato suddenly appears, he doesn't recognize her. Renato has come to warn Riccardo that he's been seen with this unknown woman, and that traitors are on their way to assassinate him. Riccardo agrees to flee, but not before Renato agrees to protect the anonymous woman. After Riccardo has gone, the conspirators arrive, including the leaders Sam and Tom, along with all their men. Renato pulls his sword. To save him, Amelia drops her veil. When the men see who she is, Sam and Tom snicker in amusement. Renato thinks Riccardo has betrayed him, and he invites the two traitors to a meeting the next morning, to plan Riccardo's fate.

ACT THREE: Overcome by jealousy, Renato considers killing Amelia. She begs for his forgiveness, and says she never truly betrayed him. In a well-known monologue, "Eri Tu," Renato decides his wife should be spared, but Riccardo should die.

Sam and Tom then arrive for their meeting. The three men decide Riccardo should be assassinated. To determine who will have the honor of committing the murder, they force Amelia to draw lots. The task is won by Renato. Just then, the page Oscar delivers an invitation to a masked ball to be held that evening at the governor's mansion. The men conclude that will be the perfect time to kill Riccardo.

Meanwhile, Riccardo has been presented with an order to exile Renato and Amelia. He hesitates to sign it, and decides to attend the ball first, where he will see Amelia for the last time. When all the guests have arrived, Sam and Tom threaten Oscar, who tells them what mask and costume Riccardo is wearing. While Riccardo and Amelia are saying their goodbyes, Renato walks up behind Riccardo with a pistol, and shoots him in the back. As he's dying, Riccardo pardons the conspirators, proclaims Amelia's innocence, and says a last farewell to his people.

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