Wednesday 22 November 2017

Classic talk: Long road to the masked ball

Classic: A staging of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera
Classic: A staging of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera

George Hamilton

A tale this week of how, like the course of true love never running smooth, getting music on to the stage hasn't always been plain sailing.

Take the case of that master of the opera, Giuseppe Verdi. It was 1857. In his mid-forties, the composer was at the height of his powers with a reputation as a giant of his craft.

He'd signed a contract with the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, at the time Italy's top opera house, and was getting down to work on a new production.

King Lear was to be the subject, but between one thing and another, the creative collaboration failed to bear fruit, and Verdi was left with a fast-approaching deadline, and a vast empty score.

He cast about for inspiration and found it in a story that had been set to music many years before by the French composer Daniel Auber.

This was based on a historical event, the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. Added spice came in the shape of a fictional love affair between the monarch and the wife of his secretary.

The actual murder was carried out at a masked ball, which gave the opera its title.

This being the middle of the 19th century, censorship was part and parcel of everyday life in Naples, so Verdi can't have been altogether surprised when his initial draft was turned down.

The killing of a king clearly wasn't appropriate for the San Carlo stage.

Verdi and his librettist, a poet and playwright by the name of Antonio Somma, reworked the story, and came back with a revised version which had, as its central character, a fictional German duke.

It seemed that this version would get past the censors without difficulty, but then events elsewhere took a hand.

In Paris, an Italian revolutionary, Felice Orsini, led an attempt on the life of the emperor Napoleon III, attacking his carriage with bombs as he and the empress made their way - ironically enough - to the opera.

Napoleon survived but eight people lost their lives. The plotters were caught. Orsini, sentenced to death, was guillotined.

Back in Naples, not even Verdi's toned-down tale was deemed acceptable now. He was ordered to do another rewrite, with a new librettist. Verdi refused, and was sued for breach of contract.

The case was settled out of court, leaving the composer free to take his opera elsewhere. With Somma's assistance, Un Ballo in Maschera was born, with the action switched to North America where the lead character was transformed into the local official.

Still loosely based on the Auber version, this masked ball follows the Governor of Boston (Riccardo), who has his eye on the wife (Amelia) of his best friend (Renato), who's also his secretary. The feeling is mutual, underscored by one of Verdi's finest love duets, Teco io sto - Gran Dio ("I'm with you now," he sings. She responds "Great God!")

With disguises deployed before they ever reach the ball, there's a detour through some fortune-­telling.

An unhappy outcome is forecast for Riccardo, the Governor. The next to shake his hand will be the one who'll kill him.

Events contrive to convince Renato that Amelia has been unfaithful. The handshake eventually happens at the ball, and we all know what's next.

The dastardly deed is done. But though there's been passion aplenty, nothing has ever come of it.

Riccardo has finally acknowledged his duty, Amelia her marriage vows.

Too late, Renato discovers he hasn't been jilted after all. The dying Riccardo declares he bears him no ill will.

Un Ballo in Maschera - a classic love triangle - eventually premièred in Rome in 1859, two years after being commissioned, and a year after it should first have been staged.

An almost Shakespearean fusion of tragedy and comedy, it was an instant success.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment