the Vincent A. Stabile Endowment for Broadcast Media,
and through contributions from listeners worldwide.
This performance will be transmitted live, in high definition and surround sound,
ACT I. Courtiers of Gustavo III, King of Sweden, await an audience with the king. Among them is a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing. As the king enters, his page, Oscar, hands him the guest list for a masked ball. Seeing the name of Amelia — wife of his secretary and friend, Anckarström — he muses on his secret passion for her. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Anckarström, who has learned of a plot against the king's life. The two men are left alone. Gustavo forbids Anckarström to reveal any of the conspirators' names, lest he be forced to punish them, but Anckarström expresses deep concern for the monarch's safety. Oscar returns with a magistrate who is pressing for the banishment of a fortune-teller, Ulrica. After Oscar defends her, the king lightheartedly decides to inspect the sorceress's practice and bids his court join him in an incognito visit to her lair.
In a warehouse at the port, Ulrica goes into a trance, calling for Satan to visit and inspire her. Gustavo arrives in time to hear her predict riches and rank for one of his sailors, Christiano, so he writes a promotion and slips it unseen into the seaman's pocket. Christiano finds it, and Ulrica's powers are admired. When Amelia's servant appears in a secret doorway, Ulrica dismisses the crowd. Gustavo remains in hiding to watch Amelia herself question Ulrica about a cure for her secret love for the king. Ulrica prescribes an herb that grows near the gallows outside the city, and which Amelia must pick in the dead of night. After Amelia prays for strength — with Gustavo vowing to follow her on her midnight mission — she leaves, and the crowd returns to hear the king, delighted with the success of his seaman's disguise, ask Ulrica at length about his own fortune. Ulrica's halting prophecy that he will die by the first hand he clasps is received with amusement by Gustavo, but the conspirators are encouraged. Still, no one will shake the king's hand — until Anckarström arrives, too late to hear the prophecy. Clasping his hand, Gustavo says that the oracle has been disproved, since Anckarström is his most loyal friend. Gustavo is recognized, and the people hail their high-spirited ruler, while the conspirators privately confirm their death plot.
ACT II. Terrified, Amelia comes to the gallows to pick the curative herb. She is shocked when Gustavo finds her, at first protesting as he declares his love but finally confessing it is requited. Gustavo's happiness is cut short by the sudden appearance of Anckarström, who has followed the conspirators from the city and passed them by to warn the king. Amelia, who has veiled herself instantly at her husband's arrival, urges Gustavo to flee; he does so only after making Anckarström swear to escort the veiled lady to the city in silence. The conspirators appear, surprised to find Anckarström and curious about his companion. Anckarström intends to guard her identity even with his sword, but Amelia unveils to prevent violence, provoking mirth and sarcasm from the conspirators. Anckarström, stunned by his friend's betrayal, asks Horn and Ribbing to come to his house at dawn.
ACT III. In his study, Anckarström tells Amelia she must die. She asks to embrace her son once more. Alone, Anckarström decides it is Gustavo, not Amelia, who should die, and he laments his lost happiness. When Horn and Ribbing appear, he asks to join their conspiracy. Each wants to be the one to assassinate the king, so they decide to draw lots. When Amelia returns, Anckarström forces her to draw a name; she picks his. The men agree on a password — "Death" — after which Oscar arrives with the king's invitation to the masked ball, describing it excitedly while Amelia, realizing they are planning to murder Gustavo at the ball, resolves to warn him.
Alone in his study, Gustavo reluctantly decides to renounce his love and send Anckarström and Amelia to Finland — to act honorably and find peace for his own heart. Oscar delivers an anonymous letter from Amelia, warning of the plot, but the king, refusing to be intimidated, leaves for the ball.
At the ball, the conspirators cannot distinguish the king from the other masked guests. Tension mounts when Oscar teasingly refuses to reveal what Gustavo is wearing, but Anckarström at length extracts the information. When Amelia, disguised, fervently begs Gustavo to leave the ball, he recognizes her voice and tells her of his plan to send her away. Anckarström steps from the crowd to stab the king. Fatally wounded, Gustavo assures Anckarström of Amelia's innocence and forgives him, as the gathering prays.
Models for Paul Steinberg's sets for the Met's new David Alden staging of Un Ballo in Maschera
© Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera 2012
Before Verdi considered the subject, Gustave III already had made a workmanlike opera for Paris, as fashioned by Daniel François Auber and Eugène Scribe in 1833. Verdi was looking for an intimate, modern subject along the lines of La Traviata, but creating a new sort of tenor character also tempted him.
The plot for Ballo was suggested by the assassination of the King of Sweden, Gustave III, who was shot while attending a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm on March 16, 1792, and who died of his wounds almost two weeks later. Although the libretto by Antonio Somma retains the names of several of the participants in the assassination, most of the plot — notably the romance between Gustavo and Amelia — is an invention.
As was usual for Verdi and for the 1850s, there were censorship troubles. Verdi began composing Ballo in 1857, on commission from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The first version of the opera, Gustavo III, was revised at the request of the Neapolitan censors, who refused to allow the depiction of a monarch's assassination onstage. In the new version of the opera, the King of Sweden became the Duke of Pomerania and the title was altered to Una Vendetta in Domino. Rehearsals were set to commence in early 1858 when the attempted assassination of the French emperor, Napoleon III, caused the censors to request even more stringent cuts and changes. Verdi angrily withdrew the opera from Naples, and Una Vendetta was offered to the Teatro Apollo in Rome. Changes ordered by the Roman censors removed the action of the opera from Europe to late-seventeenth-century Boston, with the principal tenor character now Riccardo, the colonial governor. The world premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera was in Rome, at the Apollo Theater, on February 17, 1859. The first performance of Ballo in the U.S. was in New York, at the Academy of Music, on February 11, 1861.
The Met's first Ballo, in 1889, was sung in German, with Lilli Lehmann as Amelia. The Met's new Ballo, directed by David Alden, had its first night on November 8, 2012, with Fabio Luisi on the podium.
WHAT TO READ AND HEAR
Costume designs for Ballo by Brigitte Reiffenstuel
© Brigitte Reiffenstuel/Metropolitan Opera 2012
Julian Budden's three-volume The Operas of Verdi (Clarendon) offers a thorough study of the genesis and substance of Ballo. In Mary Jane Phillips-Matz's Verdi (Oxford), readers will find an account of composer and milieu more thoroughly pondered, researched and and understood than any other biography.
On CD, the 1956 EMI Ballo takes pride of place, with Maria Callas, Giuseppe diStefano, Tito Gobbi and Fedora Barbieri splendid in every way; Antonino Votto leads the La Scala chorus and orchestra. More recent recordings offer Leontyne Price and Carlo Bergonzi in lush, lyrical voice (RCA); the sumptuous-sounding team of Margaret Price and Luciano Pavarotti under Georg Solti's muscular direction (Decca); Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli under Abbado's direction of the La Scala forces (DG); and Montserrat Caballé, in stunning voice, joined by José Carreras, Colin Davis and the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House (Phillips).
On DVD, Giuseppe Patané paces Pavarotti and Ricciarelli in a 1980 telecast of the Met's then-current production, set in Boston (Decca). Domingo and Josephine Barstow head the cast in a handsome from Salzburg, paced with insight and vigor by Solti. Abbado conducts a 1975 video from the ROH, with Domingo, Ricciarelli and Piero Cappuccilli in persuasive, youthful form.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.