An Opera in Exile: Verdi's 'Un Ballo en Maschera'

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woo-1621-ballo-storyBeginning in the late 1800's with a crusading committee known as the Watch and Ward Society, Bosto 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 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 meant for a 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.  Censors there were a bit more lenient, but still demanded changes.

To get the opera to the stage, Verdi and his librettist kept their story but changed the setting. The opera's hero became an English nobleman, serving as a colonial governor, and the whole story was moved across the Atlantic to Massachusetts.  Apparently, illicit love and murder were perfectly acceptable when taking place on the opposite side of the Atlantic, and the censors' objections were promptly withdrawn.  Instead of being "Banned in Boston," Verdi's drama was exiled to Boston.

By now, the opera's original setting is no longer a problem, and many modern productions move the action back to Sweden.  But Verdi seemed content to have his opera set in Massachusetts, and that's how we hear it this week on World of Opera.  

Host Lisa Simeone presents Un Ballo in Maschera from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  Tenor Piotry Beczala is Riccardo, the governor, and baritone George Petean is Riccardo's friend and romantic rival, Renato, with soprano Anja Harteros as Amelia, the woman who loves one of the men but is married to the other.


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