Un Ballo In Maschera: Intrigue, Murder, Censorship

BY ANNA BROOK

The Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) 30th season continued with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, conducted by Stephen Lord. The opera has all the components of a worthy tragedy: conspiracy, distrust, betrayal, a fortune teller, a damsel in distress, and finally murder. The opera is a piece of historical fiction about the assassination of King Gustavus of Sweden.

The opera begins at King Gustavus’ court, where his subjects are divided between those who are loyal and those who plan to assassinate him. Gustavus hears the day’s petitions and is faced with the decision of whether or not to banish the gypsy fortuneteller Mam’zelle Arvidson. To see her powers for himself, Gustavus organizes a court outing to her cave. While there, Gustavus overhears a private meeting between the fortuneteller and his best friend Count Anckarstrom’s wife, Amelia, whom Gustavus secretly loves. Eavesdropping, he learns that she has come to seek a cure to banish her love for Gustavus. The gypsy prescribes an herb that must be gathered at the cemetery at midnight.

When Amelia leaves, Gustavus, disguised as a fisherman, asks for his fortune. Mam’zelle predicts that he will be assassinated by the next friend to shake his hand. Unsuspecting, Anckarstrom enters and Gustavus shakes his hand, sure that he has broken the prediction because Anckarstrom is his closest friend.

Frightened, Amelia goes to the cemetery to collect the herbs. Gustavus follows her there and the two declare their love, but determine to be honorable. Anckarstrom arrives to warn the King that assassins are waiting outside the cemetery to kill him, then gives Gustavus his cloak so that he may escape. Gustavus asks Anckarstrom to escort a hooded Amelia back to the city without trying to find out her identity. The two are intercepted by the assassins who want to kill Anckarstrom for his loyalty to the king, and Amelia is forced to lift her hood in order to save her husband. Anckarstrom is enraged that his wife had a rendezvous with Gustavus, and so tells the laughing assassins to come to his house in the morning.

Back home, Anckarstrom wants to kill Amelia, but decides that Gustavus should die instead. The assassins arrive and the three plan to kill the king at a masked ball that evening. Amelia tries to warn Gustavus, but she is unsuccessful, and Anckarstrom fatally stabs Gustavus. With his dying breath, the king swears that Amelia has been faithful to her husband and he pardons the murderer. As the king dies, Anckarstrom is torn with regret for what he has done.

The opera had a difficult time finding producers when it was first written. The real King Gustavus III of Sweden was murdered in 1792. While Verdi was readying for the opera’s premiere in the late 1850’s, there was an assassination attempt on Napoleon. As a result, the censors refused to allow Verdi’s opera to run. He and librettist Antonia Somma then moved the setting of the opera to 1690’s Boston. Yes, Boston. The King became the Governor of Boston, and his trusted friend Count Anckarstrom became his Creole secretary. As the opera’s program notes mentioned, no one at the time noticed the problem of having Puritans have a masked ball.

Fortunately, the original setting of the opera has been restored, and the Boston Lyric Opera put on a marvelous production. The opera opened with a rather disappointing silent scene of courtiers arriving at the palace that took the audience’s attention away from the prelude. However, the minute the singing started that scene was forgotten. Tenor Julian Gavin, in his debut role at the BLO, was a wonderful King Gustavus. He was carefree at all the right moments, yet his voice had in it the earnestness of the king who, despite his flaws, is a positive character who cares for his people. Chen-ye Yuan’s baritone was a good contrast to the king’s attitude. Yuan, in the role of Anckarstrom, took on the king’s worries about the assassination plot. Tenors David Cushing and Michael Callas made a delectable pair of villainous assassins.

The female roles were just as strong as their male counterparts. Soprano Doina Dimitriu channeled Amelia’s innocence. Especially poignant was the scene in which she begs Anckarstrom to let her see her son before he kills her. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was also magnificent as the fortuneteller. Her voice had a wide range, dipping down to all the low notes. She had an impressive stage presence and made the role come alive. Soprano Heidi Stober was an absolute jewel as Gustavus’s page Oscar. Stober livened up the stage every time she appeared.

The entire production was a delight, bringing one of Verdi’s masterpieces to life with all the right nuances. The opera ran from March 30 to April 10. The BLO’s next production will be The Marriage of Figaro from April 27 to May 8.

Rating: ****

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