Last night was the first opera in our subscription series for the season – Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (or, as the Minnesota Opera insisted on calling it, “A Masked Ball.” Right translation, but I still think the title should be rendered in the language in which the piece is performed. Hence, Un ballo in maschera it is.)
As longtime readers know, every production at the Minnesota Opera is a cause for apprehension. Will we see an example of the notorious “Director’s Theater” about which we’ve written in the past? Would we see a ridiculous “re-imagination” of the story, casting it as a Civil War epic or, heaven forbid, a science fiction piece? What will they do next?
Well, as it turned out, this was a pretty straightforward adaptation of Verdi’s tale of the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden in 1792 The staging itself, a co-production of the Boston Lyric Opera designed by Allen Moyer and directed by James Robinson, was reasonable if not inspired. The performance featured show-stopping turns by the Charles Taylor as Count Anckarström, Gustavo’s loyal secretary and cuckolded husband who turns assassin, Jill Grove as Ulrica the fortune teller, and Nili Riemer in the trouser role of Oscar, the page; Cynthia Lawrence as Amelia, Gustavo’s love interest (and Anckarström’s wife), who truth be told was stolid and a bit shrill (especially in Act II's Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa, which should have brought down the house), and Evan Bowers as King Gustavo in a dependable if unaffecting performance. The orchestra, under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was dependable as usual.
With all this done, we can turn to the story itself, which is a marvelous example of the suspension of disbelief that grand opera so often requires. For you see, although Gustavo and Amelia are lovers, their love is apparently of the unconsummated type, though you wouldn’t know it from all the carrying on they do to other people and to each other. When Gustavo visits the gypsy fortune teller Ulrica in the final scene of Act I, she prophesies that he will be killed by the next one to shake his hand, whereupon he begins working the room, trying to find someone who will shake hands with him and prove the lie to Ulrica’s words. Well, these people aren’t stupid – especially the members of Gustavo’s court who actually are plotting to kill him. It’s left to Count Anckarström, who just then walks into Ulrica’s parlor, to take his friend’s hand in his. Bingo – I think we have a winner here! Or a loser, as the case may be.
Invariably, as Act II ends, the three of them – Gustavo, Amelia and Anckarström – wind up in the same place, with disastrous results. Amelia seeks to break the affair by ingesting an herb (recommended by Ulrica when she visited her) that would make her love for him go away; Gustavo follows her there in hopes of talking her out of it. Anckarström, naturally, winds up there as well, having followed Gustavo to warn him of the cabal out to assassinate him. The loyal Anckarström convinces Gustavo to return to town in disguise, to which Gustavo agrees only on condition that Anckarström escort this unknown woman, another of the king's conquests - the veiled (and thus hidden from view) Amelia – back to safety, all the while promising not to look at or talk to her. Got all this so far?
Well, Gustavo escape. Anckarström and Amelia are surrounded by the cabal. A showdown seems inevitable. And then, somewhat improbably, Amelia rips off her veil, revealing her identity to her shocked husband and stunned conspirators. (The opera notes suggest that her vail falls off in a struggle, but this certainly is not what happened last night.) Anckarström is angry and humiliated (and who can blame him?), vowing revenge on the king who betrayed him, and the wife who cheated on him. And what’s Amelia’s response to all this? Horror? Shame? Repentance? No to all three. Poor me, she sings. Will nobody show pity on my pathetic condition? Well, what did she expect? Was she one of those women who thought that by stamping her foot she could put an end to this childish sword play between her husband, defending the king, and the conspirators seeking to kill him? If so, she fails miserably.
It’s a grating moment, one reminiscent of Puccini’s eponymous heroine Floria Tosca who, while her lover is being tortured, has nothing more to ask then What did I do to deserve this? Like so many women in opera, it's all about her.
This continues into Act III, where Anckarström first vows to kill Amelia (who is still appealing for pity rather than forgiveness), and then turns his eyes on Gustavo, joining the ringleaders in their plot to murder Gustavo. And, as luck would have it, the king intends to host a masked ball that very night (get the title?), inviting both Amelia and Anckarström (who he is unaware has discovered the truth) as well as the conspirators (he rejects all warnings of the danger that faces him). Well, this plays right into the plotters’ hands – they can murder Gustavo, but because they’re doing it at a masked ball, no one will know who they are! In the meantime, Amelia is still busy lamenting her unfortunate position, thinking of her own misery even as she suspects of the plans to murder her lover.
Fast forward to the end. Everyone is at the ball. Amelia tries to warn Gustavo, but he’s resigned to whatever happens. Anckarström enters, finds Gustavo, and plunges a dagger in his back. Gustavo dies, but not before pardoning Anckarström, and making him ambassador to Finland. (I wonder if anyone else in the diplomatic corps knows about this method of advancement?) Anckarström, convinced now that is wife was simply imprudent (and somewhat insipid) but not impure, bewails his mistake, but takes solace in the forgiveness of his once and still friend. The curtain falls. Applause all round. Drive safely, have a good night.
As I say, you have to suspend disbelief when you’re talking about grand opera. With a few exceptions, you’re there to hear the music and admire the acting, not to try and make sense of the plot. And Un ballo in maschera is no exception. It remains one of Verdi’s great operas, one that continues to remain in the repertory worldwide. However, that doesn’t stop me from making one slight suggestion to the end of the story. It concerns the true-life ending to the assassination of Gustav III. Now, I’m in no position to give Verdi suggestions. (Nor is he, actually.) Nonetheless…
In reality, there was no forgiveness, no happy ending – at least as far as the conspirators were concerned. (In fact, Gustav’s own sexuality was somewhat suspect, so you might as well get rid of the love triangle as well.) In real life, Gustav’s brother Charles, after acceding to the throne, sentenced the conspirators to death (eventually commuting the sentence to perpetual banishment from the country). Then, to set an example for anyone who might get such treasonous ideas in the future, he then had Anckarström’s right hand (the one that held the gun) chopped off, beheaded him, had him drawn and quartered, and then put on display.
Imagine what a finish that would have made! Charles, who is an attendee at the ball, swoops down after Gustavo’s death, taking power. He orders Anckarström to be taken away and, as the guards drag him away (his heels leaving marks on the stage), Charles sings the final lament:
It was predetermined from the start, your presence here.
Your role in the gypsy's tragic prophesy is now complete,
Your name written in the Book of Fate.
It has now fallen to me to complete the last chapter in that Book,
Written with the blood of a traitor.
We hear Anckarström’s screams offstage as the torturers start in on him, the music comes crashing to a crescendo, and the curtain falls. Well, a guy can dream.
And anyway, if more operas ended that way, perhaps we’d have more young people at the opera.