Courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Here we go again. “Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” is yet another opera about a powerful ruler who in the end forgives his enemies. Didn’t we just see that last week at The MET: Live in HD?
Yes, we did.
Saturday’s “La Clemenza di Tito” has a number of things in common with Verdi’s “Ballo.” Mozart revisited the Emperor Titus, a darling of the Enlightenment. In 1859, Verdi revisited King Gustav III of Sweden. He championed a Scandinavian Renaissance in the late 18th century. Like Titus, Gustav was a powerful political and cultural leader. He established a brilliant court in Stockholm to rival, as he often said, Versailles.
Lavishly supporting the arts, Gustav founded the Swedish Academy, the Royal Opera House, various court theaters and was a playwright himself. His excesses came at a cost. The national debt increased and most dangerous of all, Gustav reduced the parliamentary powers of the nobility. No wonder a conspiracy developed.
The king’s enemies plotted an assassination, carried out by Count Jacob Anckarström.
He shot Gustav at a masked ball on March 16, 1792, but the king lingered for 13 days. All the conspirators were tried and exiled. The count suffered the most. Condemned to lose all property and privileges, he was put in public stocks after which his right hand was cut off, then his head – on April 27. So much for the king’s forgiveness.
All the above is historical record. Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, chose otherwise, basing the opera on an 1833 French play by Eugène Scribe.
In Act I, the opera king holds forth in Drottiningholm Palace. Courtiers gossip and there are intimations of a conspiracy. Gustav dismisses such talk, but inclines to visit Ulrica, a fortune-teller. She happens to arrive just in time. During all this, we learn of the king’s secret love for the Count’s wife, Amelia. There is no mention of the real Queen Sophia Magdalena, but this is opera – not history.
Complications arise; Gustav visits the fortune-teller and learns, or believes her prophecy that he will die by the next man to shake his hand. The count enters, they shake hands, and the king laughs off the prophecy.
More complications arise with Amelia, a mysterious herbal concoction, and Anckarström suspects an affair.
By the end of Act II, he meets with the conspirators and during intermission apparently decides to seek vengeance.
Act III opens as the assassins draw lots for who will kill Gustav at the masked ball. Anckarström “wins.” The king gets an anonymous warning which he foolishly ignores. And out of compassion, he decides to renounce Amelia.
At the ball, the count relies on Oscar, a page, to describe Gustav’s costume. Fortunately, the information is correct, or we’d have a different opera. At the moment Gustav tells Amelia goodbye, the count dispatches the king.
Unlike the grim reality of his real lingering death, the opera king forgives the count, admits his love for Amelia and insists she is innocent.
The opera has had a colorful history beginning with its premiere on February 17, 1859.
Originally titled “Una vendetta,” other changes followed. Set in Boston to avoid censors worried about European assassinations, the North American version eventually became “Ballo” set back in Sweden.
When first performed at the Met, Marian Anderson broke the company’s color barrier by singing Ulrica in 1955.
The Met’s new production has been designed by David Alden and is set in the 20th century. Inspired by film noir, Alden and his creative team offer a stylish black-and-white universe with touches of red, scarlet and magenta.
Like Mozart’s “Tito,” Verdi’s “Ballo” was part of a popular wave of all things Gustav III in the mid 19th century.
The French authored several plays and there were at least two other operas about the Swedish king. Forty years after Verdi’s opera became popular, August Strindberg wrote “Gustav III,” a four-act play. It adheres more closely to historical facts. But that’s smarmy Strindberg – not soap-opera Verdi.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.