It's time once again for Popehat Goes To The Opera, the feature in which I demonstrate that opera is more bizarre, ridiculous, and wonderful than you had realized.
Previously I defiled Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Wagner's Tannhauser. Let's give the Germans a rest and abuse an Italian, shall we? The prolific and talented Giuseppe Verdi — good old Joe Green himself — is as good a candidate as any. This edition's opera is Verdi's mid-career work Un Ballo In Maschera, or "A Masked Ball." No, there will be no testicular jokes. Opera is Serious Business.
Un Ballo has many things to recommend it: catchy tunes, excellent ensemble harmony, good opportunities for scenery-chewing, witches, unbridled pages, prophecies, and so on. Best of all, it is relatively short. Verdi had either self-control or an astute grasp of his audience's limitations; the duration is tolerable even to people who are only pretending to like opera for purposes of social convention, business development, or the dogged pursuit of coitus.
As before, my guide is Sir Denis Forman's sublimely witty and fond review of opera. My preferred version is this remastered 1956 recording with a stellar cast led by Maria Callas. Nobody does "tormented" like Maria Callas. She could sing "These Are A Few of My Favorite Things" and make it sound so harrowing that the Von Trapp kids start wearing black and cutting themselves in the Hot Topic bathroom.
A Kingkiller Chronicle
Ballo is based on a true story — the 1792 assassination of Gustav III of Sweden at a masquerade ball. Verdi undertook the work on a commission from a Naples opera house. He planned to use the libretto Gustav III by playwright Antonio Somma, but Neopolitan censors were unhappy with the initial draft. They apparently felt that the murder of a king, the presence of fortunetellers, and other dramatic flourishes were a threat to the famous stability and good order of the Italian government. After fits and starts Verdi very begrudgingly changed the name a few times — eventually to Un ballo in maschera — and changed the characters and setting.1
Nobody is certain whether Verdi's censor-pleasing changes were deliberately ridiculous.2 Verdi initially attempted to change the king to a duke and Sweden to Pomerania3, but this wasn't good enough. As Sir Denis Forman points out, the censors may have been agitated by the attempted assassination of Napoleon III in 1858, particularly because he was on his way to an opera at the time.4 Verdi eventually transformed the lead character from the King of Sweden to the colonial "Governor of Boston." The scene changed from 18th-century Sweden to 17th-century colonial America. Notwithstanding that 17th-century colonial America was characterized by famine, disease, religious extremism, and extremely uncomfortable shoes, the opera portrays it as featuring royal courts, pages, masked balls, and assorted Euro-frippery. The result is dramatically awkward. Fortunately Verdi's music is good enough to carry it.
There Are Ways Of Telling Whether She Is A Witch!
Verdi opens with a prelude that previews some of the main melodies of the opera, an increasingly popular practice that made opera somewhat more accessible and survives in musical theater to this day. It's tuneful. Listen to the main theme starting at 1:30 – 2:08.5
The curtain opens upon the court of Riccardo — let's call him Rick — the Governor of Boston, Earl of Warwick, and snappy dresser. Rick's various sycophants are serenading him as he wakes, telling him he's simply the cat's ass. As they do so, schemers and would-be assassins Sam and Tom — surely the most useless conspirators in the operatic canon — are muttering about how they want revenge upon him for some disappointments related to real estate. Listen to the two groups harmonize at about 6:00 – 6:30..
Rick enters and proclaims his desire to do right by his subjects. The following exchange is probably not intended to be an ironic comment on governance:
RICCARDO (entering and greeting them)
Friends – soldiers –
(then to the deputies, as he receives their petitions)
And you who are equally dear to me! Give them to me;
You may count on me. I must
protect my children, satisfying
every just desire.
Power has no beauty unless it dry
its subjects’ tears and strive
for uncorrupted glory.
OSCAR (to Riccardo)
Please read the list
of invitations to the ball.
Rick grabs the list, intending to make sure there are plenty of eligible women, and twitches when he sees the name Amelia, with whom he is desperately in love. The problem is that Amelia is married to Rick's best friend and top adviser, Renato. Angst ensues for the rest of the opera. Rick sings of Amelia, reprising the main theme. (8:18) and eventually the court joins in, singing about how wonderful Rick is as Rick sings about wanting to bone his best friend's wife (9:30).
Enter Renato, the friend and counselor in question, who observes that Rick is in a bad mood. Renato, who is not overburdened by what we now call emotional intelligence, tries to divert Rick from his obvious mopery by warning that there is a plot to kill him. Before Renato can convince Rick, a judge arrives seeking approval for the banishment of a witch. Traditionally the punishment of witches had been a matter for local governments but now apparently it's been centralized in the Governor's hands. Thanks Obama! Rick quizzes the judge about what the witch, Ulrica, has done to warrant banishment from Boston, which normally is something that must be earned. Oscar, Rick's page, leaps to Ulrica's defense with spirited praise for her soothsaying abilities and productive relationship with Lucifer. Oscar, though dramatically a boy, is played by a soprano; Verdi follows operatic tradition regarding pages by writing Oscar to sound extremely enthusiastic about everything, like a dog who wets on the hall carpet from sheer joy when you get home from work. Oscar gets a nice virtuosic song about Ulrica (16:41).
Rick didn't get to be a Governor and an Earl because of his attention span. He announces happily that he's decided to disguise himself as a fisherman and observe Ulrica to see what's she's about and laugh at her gullible customers. Oscar is delighted, the conspirators Sam and Tom think it's a great opportunity to stand around and mutter ineffectually some more, the court is game for it because cocaine hasn't been invented yet, and Renato is concerned for Rick's safety. They voice their respective views in turn in a terrific rollicking ensemble piece. (19:28).
The scene shifts to Ulrica's cave, usually dressed up with smoking cauldrons and what-have-you. There is a suitably ominous orchestral introduction (:12) and Ulrica invites Satan6 to join her. She gets Rick instead; he has shown up before his gigantic entourage, who can't find parking. Ulrica's attendants rebuke Rick as she thrashes around pretending to be in the ecstasy of demonic possession for a bit. Eventually a sailor pushes in front of Rick and demands his fortune. Verdi is very good at musical characterization; listen to the sailor's entry music and his blustery introduction (28:00). Gold and rank are in your future, Ulrica tells him. Rick — who has this morning gone from enthusiasm about being Governor, to anguish about unrequited love, to enthusiasm about putting on a costume to make fun of a witch, now decides that it is absolutely crucial that everyone take the witch seriously. These days Rick would be medicated7 and the opera would have no plot whatsoever. Rick hastily writes an officer's commission and slips it into the sailor's bag with some gold. The sailor joyfully discovers these items, the crowd praises Ulrica's powers, and the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies is unsubtly waved like a flaming Cliff Notes.
Enter a discreet servant, who begs a private audience with his mistress. Ulrica sends her fans away, but Rick — who recognizes the servant as working for his crush Amelia — hides behind a tapestry or arras or alcove or rock or something. Amelia enters, and sorrowfully reveals what she wants from Ulrica — a magical means of falling out of love with Rick. Rather than consult a sorceress Amelia would have been better served to consult English poet Wendy Cope:
Two Cures for Love
1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2. The easy way: get to know him better.
But Amelia's looking for something more straightforward and operatically appropriate like a potion or possibly an unguent. Ulrica tells her that the cure to love can be found in an herb that can only be picked by hand at midnight at a lonely gallows. When you're a seer you have to sell it; nobody ever got a good tip by telling a client to pick up something at Whole Foods. Amelia resolves to go that very night. There is a sublime trio as Amelia prays for strength, Rick vows to follow her, and Ulrica promises peace — listen to a snippet at 34:01 to 35:45.
Amelia departs, and Rick — still dressed as a fisherman — re-enters, this time with his full posse. Without explaining why a fisherman has courtiers, he launches into a florid but tuneful request for his fortune (38:17) couched in maritime imagery. Apparently, since he's now trying to trick Ulrica into giving him a fisherman's fortune, he's switched back to wanting to make fun of her. Or maybe now he really thinks he's really a fisherman, it's not clear.
Eventually he presents his hand to Ulrica to learn his future. Shan't, she says. I insist, says he. Oh very well, you're gonna die soon, she says. Rick is brave. If I die bravely in battle, that's fine, he says. No, says Ulrica — you'll die at the hand of a friend.
Consternation! Tumult! Rhubarb! (41:45). Everybody freaks, and launches into a catchy ensemble: Rick trying manfully to scoff at the prophecy, his entourage horrified, and Sam and Tom worried that their pointless failure of a conspiracy has been found out, Ulrica saying she just reads hands like they're written. It's odd but man does it work. (42:17-45:19)
Tell me who shall kill me, demands Rick. The first person to touch your hand today, says Ulrica. Swell! Says Rick, and wanders about trying to shake people's hands as they recoil. Nobody will shake — until Renato wanders in, and Rick vigorously shakes his hand, proclaiming him his most trusted friend. Rick is genre blind and doesn't get what this means. Ulrica, realizing that Rick is not a fisherman after all, asks for mercy; Rick is magnanimous and gives her cash. Thanks, she says, but you're still a dead man. Sir.
Since maybe a half hour has passed without anyone fluffing Rick, the chorus shows up to proclaim his awesomeness as governor, and the act ends with a skillful polyphony of chorus praising, the conspirators grumbling, Ulrica warning, and Rick saying that everything will turn out swell (49:22). SPOILER: naw.
This is the Most Awkward Cosplay EVER.
The second act opens at midnight by the gallows with an almost cartoonishly turbulent prelude (50:32) that resolves into one of Amelia's main themes (51:22). Amelia appears, looking for the magic stop-loving-inappropriate-men weed which, as modern history would suggest, does not exist. Before she can find it, but after an operatically appropriate interval of angst, Rick shows up. They exchange an entire junior-high-schooler-mix-tape full of romantic sentiment: I belong to another, I am consumed by love, you must forget me, what we feel is wrong, and so and and so forth, at length. It's not the best part of the opera, frankly. Rick eventually convinces Amelia to admit she loves him, saying this is all he wants of her (spoiler: naw), and they break into a decent tune about how they love each other and maybe everything will work out if they give into it (1:30:32) (Spoiler: eh, you know.)
Enter, abruptly, Renato, who is justifiably worried that his flighty facing-several-assassination-plots employer is wandering around graveyards in the dark. Amelia swiftly puts on her veil and Rick composes himself. Is it cockblocking if the interrupter is her husband? Verdi doesn't say. Renato explains he has narrowly escaped the conspirators, who are even now seeking Rick, hoping for some stabby-stabby. Rick agrees to flee but asks Renato to escort his, erm, "friend" and to respect her privacy and anonymity and absolutely not to think "hey, my wife has that dress" or anything. They trio in a grim key (1:11:18).
Rick leaves. Renato rather disapprovingly tells Amelia to follow him, and is preparing to escort her to the city gates when the conspirators show up for a bit of u-wot-mate. They taunt and threaten, demanding to see what secret lover Renato is out with. Renato is defiant, swords are drawn, death is imminent, and rather than see her husband killed, Amelia throws herself between them, dropping her veil. Renato is thunderstruck. (1:15:10.) The conspirators are dumbfounded. Wait. Wait. His wife? His wife? What follows shows Verdi's facility with ensemble and harmony and mixing different tones and emotions: the conspirators laugh and mock Renato for indulging in costume play with his own wife in a graveyard, Rick seethes in humiliation, Amelia weeps in torment. Utterly brilliant and tuneful. (1:17:31).
Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way.
Act Three opens in Renato's house, with Renato deciding when, how, and possibly whether to kill Amelia. Operas are not woke; this is not presented as much of a moral dilemma, and it's fairly traditional for Amelia to spend a substantial part of this scene groveling on the ground, which is generally not easy for male OR female opera singers without the use of hoists. Renato tells Amelia, more or less, to go pick out the outfit you want to die in. Amelia pleads with him to let her embrace their son one last time8.) Renato relents. Alone, he sings of his humiliation, of his betrayal by Rick, and of his rising realization that Rick should die. Listen to him sing about his determination to end his former friend (1:29:15.)
Useless conspirators Sam and Tom show up, invited by Renato and heralded by their theme music from the overture. They cower as Renato tells them he knows of their plans to kill Rick, and are puzzled when he agrees to join in. Renato leads them in a catchy, twangy "we're in this together" song (1:39:08). It's clear Renato is going to be the brains in this operation. But who will be the brawn? Who's going to swing the blade? Renato demands the right, Sam and Tom rather unconvincingly protest, and they agree to draw lots. They are preparing to do so when Amelia wanders back in, all "look, its not like I'm wanting to die or anything, but how long is this business meeting going to take? It's the weekend and you promised some us time." Renato is perfectly happy to have Amelia draw the piece of paper from the hat to determine, unknowingly, who kills her would-be lover. Verdi, like the producer of a reality tv show, draws out the tension shamelessly, but in the end Amelia draws the lot, Sam and Tom pretend to be disappointed that it's Renato's name., and they burst into a quite nice quartet (1:41:12).
The tension's high, so it's time for comic relief — Oscar the page arrives to invite everyone (including, for some reason, known conspirators) to the big masked ball with a completely insufferable level of enthusiasm. Renato thinks. Big crowds? Everyone in disguise? Lots of alcohol? This is the perfect opportunity to kill someone. Oscar launches into a really quite delightful song about how off the hook this party is going to be (1:49:08) as Amelia despairs and Renato and the conspirators chortle over the imminent death of Rick — once again, showcasing Verdi's ability to harmonize not only different voices but completely different moods and emotions.
You Stabbed Me All Night Long
We find Rick preparing for the ball, in most stagings sitting in front of the curtain. He has decided to send Renato and Amelia as envoys to England to put Amelia beyond temptation and suspicion and Rick out of glowering-and-constantly-nagging range. He dwells on how painful it will be to lose Amelia, but is interrupted by Oscar, who excels at interrupting emotional moments with snail-mail. Rick reads the note Oscar has delivered – a woman warns him someone will try to kill him that very night at the ball. Apparently Amelia feels guilty — but not guilty enough to tell him that it's her husband Renato who plans to kill him, or to use her own name. Of course, Rick ought to be able to puzzle that out for himself. But Rick is an opera hero, flighty, and not particularly bright, as opera convention requires. He proclaims that he is a man and nobody stops a man from going to a fancy dress party in a cape and a domino mask. Then — in my favorite musical bit of the opera – hearing the musicians begin to play at the ball, he reprises the main love theme, saying he will see Amelia one last time and things will be swell (spoiler: naw), and the curtain parts dramatically to reveal the magnificent party. It's silly and overwrought and utterly operatic (1:52:31 – 1:53:10)
Everyone at the party is having a hell of a time. It's a costume party, but a lame tiny-mask-on-a-stick costume party. Nobody's got a bitchin' Boba Fett rig or anything. Renato, searching for Rick, annoys Oscar by recognizing Oscar immediately, but begs Oscar to spill how Rick is dressed so Renato can find him. He's dressed exactly like Rick except with a tiny stupid mask, Oscar doesn't say. Instead, Oscar launches into a nice virtuoso "I know but I'm not telling and also these are extremely strong wine spritzers" number.
Meanwhile, in front of stately dancers, Rick and Amelia reunite. The following scene — in which we know that Renato's about to leap out and off Rick at any moment — unfolds with the guests dancing in the background to what Sir Denis Forman aptly calls "mincingly irrelevant dance music." Rick tells Amelia that he's sending them to England, and they sing a pained goodbye (2:00:48.) Goodbye! Farewell! And here's my goodbye motherfucker, quoth Renato, springing from behind a plant or a chair or a column or something, and either stabbing or shooting Rick depending upon the production budget. Renato throws off his mask triumphantly and the crowd, horrified and outraged, energetically denounces him. Rick — dying, chastened, and finally remembering that he is not actually a fisherman — takes responsibility, pardons Renato with his last breaths, assuring Renato that even though he and Amelia were deeply in love and would have totally done it, repeatedly, across 2 – 4 different sets, they technically hadn't yet, so, you know, Renato has that going for him, which is nice. There's a very nice ensemble harmony as everyone reflects on how great Rick is (2:06:36), and Rick expires quite swiftly (in opera terms, meaning in about eight minutes, with three reprises) to the horror of all.
Nominally a story of doomed love, Un ballo in maschera works much better as an intrigue and character study. The love duets are not the highlight of the opera. Instead, Verdi's skill at moving the plot along briskly with the music, clever and multi-faceted ensemble work, and musical characterization are. In the opera, you can see the steady march from the time when operas were just vocal concerts in costume to genuine drama set to good music. The inexorable power of fate, tragic flaws, pride and humiliation — all the ingredients of high opera are there. It's a keeper.
Next time on Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tuberculosis, the rent-control-landlord's little friend.
- Very occasionally the opera has been performed with the original names and settings as Gustav III. This is weapons-grade opera hipsterism and you should only attempt it in a controlled environment. ▲
- "Angry artist, instructed to make disagreeable changes, subversively makes them badly" is an old-but-usually-false story in art, from the bafflingly inappropriate epilogue to Mozart's Don Giovanni to Harrison Ford's narration of Blade Runner. ▲
- As I noted in my piece on Cosi fan tutte, 18th and 19th-century opera-goers apparently had a very low threshold for what locales were "exotic." ▲
- Specifically Rossini's William Tell. Its overture is the theme to The Lone Ranger but otherwise it is forgettable. Definitely not an opera worth dying to see. ▲
- That's Toscanini conducting. Toscanini was the sort of conductor who would clutch his head and hiss "assassins!" at his orchestra when their performance was sub-par. This is also how I manage law clerks. ▲
- Or, in some translations, Stan. ▲
- Or, possibly, President. ▲
- Presumably there is a nanny who watches the child whilst both parents are in graveyards or witches' emporiums or masked balls or thus-and-such. ▲
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