Major Operas | Un ballo in maschera by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic

A Masked Ball

In 1857, Verdi was virtually asking for censorship trouble when he chose Gustavuse III, ou Le bal masqué (‘Gustavus III, or The Masked Ball’) for his next work. In 1792 King Gustavusus III of Sweden had been shot dead at a masked ball in Stockholm. Regicide was a taboo subject and the Neapolitan censors immediately demanded radical changes.

They objected to the Swedish location because it was too close to home – and shooting the king dead on stage was too much like the real event, although stabbing with a knife would be permitted. Verdi refused the censors’ demands and left Naples for Rome, where he accepted a change of locale to Boston in the USA and exchanged ‘Riccardo, Count of Warwick’ for ‘King Gustavus III’ for the premiere at the Teatro Apollo on 17 February 1859.

Further alterations were made for the Paris premiere in 1861 – for instance Boston was relocated to Naples. Despite this tinkering, Un ballo’s splendidly varied music and mixing of comic and tragic elements, the beautiful love duet in Act II and imaginative effects like the assassins plotting on stage, while a stately court dance is played, combined to make the opera an enduring success.

Composed: 1857
Premiered: 1859, Rome
Libretto by Antonio Somma, after Eugène Scribe

This synopsis uses the Swedish character names from the original Scribe libretto. Where necessary, the names used in the revised US version are shown in brackets.

Act I

Courtiers await the arrival of Gustavus III (Riccardo). Among them are the Counts Horn and Ribbing (Tom and Samuel), who are plotting his downfall. Gustavus arrives; Oscar, his page, hands him a list of guests for a masked ball. Gustavus, seeing the name of Amelia, sings of his concealed love for her; she is the wife of Anckarstroem (Renato), Gustavus’s secretary. Anckarstroem enters and warns Gustavus of a conspiracy against him; the king does not heed his words.

A judge brings Gustavus a document to sign, banishing Mademoiselle Arvidson (Ulrica), a fortune-teller. Oscar advises Gustavus against signing the order. The king suggests they pay her a visit. He will disguise himself as a fisherman.

Mlle Arvidson invokes the devil to aid her prophesies. A sailor, Christian (Silvano) hears that he will soon find promotion and wealth, which comes true since Gustavus has slipped some money and a recommendation into his pocket.

Amelia arrives. She reveals to the fortune-teller that she is in love with the king and wishes to calm her feelings. Mlle Arvidson instructs her to pick a herb at midnight. Overhearing, Gustavus is overjoyed to learn that his love is reciprocated and resolves to meet Amelia at midnight. He requests his fortune. Mlle Arvidson recognizes his hand as that of a great man, but is unwilling to disclose what she reads there. Once persuaded, she tells him that his death is imminent. His assassin will be a friend, more specifically, the next person to shake his hand. Unconvinced, Gustavus offers...

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