Un Ballo In Maschera

Long Story Short

Happy-go-lucky king falls in love with the wife of his best friend and most trusted advisor. Love's passion is checked by duty while jealousy leads to conspiracy, betrayal, and murder at a masked ball.

Who's Who?

Gustavus III is the young king of Sweden, playful and amorous.

Count Renato Anckarström, an older and far less giddy man, is his chief courtier.

Amelia Anckarström is Renato's wife and the mother of their son.

Mam'zelle Arvidson is a seer and fortune-teller who may be in league with Satan.

Oscar, a teenage boy whose voice has not yet broken, is a fun-loving page in Gustav's service. He is sung by a soprano.

Counts Ribbing and de Horn are Swedish noblemen and enemies of the king.

Christiano, a sailor, has done good service in the Swedish navy.

The Chief Justice is a superstitious Swedish judge.

Where and When?

In and near Stockholm, in the 1790s.

What's Going On?

Gustavus III is a bright, likeable king, beloved by most of his subjects—but not all. A handful of noblemen carry grudges against their sovereign and are plotting his assassination. While the king is aware of their conspiracy, he has yet to take action against them. Instead he has been arranging opportunities to indulge his love of deception and disguise.

Each of the opera's three acts features the king in disguise. In the first act, the king disguises himself as a sailor in order to spy on an accused witch. When his Chief Justice accuses Mlle. Arvedson of being the bride of Satan, young Oscar jumps to her defense and describes her as a popular and harmless person. Gustavus decides to see for himself; he calls for the whole court to don disguises, and they adjourn to her dwelling. She predicts good fortune for Christiano, a loyal sailor in Gustavus's navy, and Gustavus sees to it that her prophecy comes true. Then she reads the king's palm and predicts that he will be killed by the next man who shakes his hand. This man turns out to be Count Anckarström, who arrives at that moment and thus did not hear the prophecy. But since Anckarström is his best friend, the king laughs at the witch's prophecy and decides that she is indeed harmless.

In the second act Gustavus again uses a disguise, this time because he is pursuing a clandestine affair. He is in love with Anckarström's wife, Amelia, and knows that she is trying hard to deny her own love for him. At dead of night she goes to a field on the outskirts of town where condemned prisoners are hanged. She means to gather the herb that grows in the shadow of the gallows, an herb which—according to Mlle. Arvidson—can cure her guilty love. But Gustavus confronts her, declares his passion for her, and persuades her to confess that she loves him. No sooner has she done so than her husband is upon them; he has followed the king, as have a gang of assassins, and Anckarström implores Gustavus to flee. Gustavus makes Anckarstöm promise he will escort Gustavus's (now veiled) lady-friend back to the city without looking at her, and reluctantly leaves them. Moments later, however, the would-be assassins catch up with Anckarström and the lady. When they unmask her, they get a good laugh—a man keeping a midnight rendezvous beneath the gallows with his own wife! And in surprise, anger, and sorrow Anckarström realizes that his wife and the king have deceived him.

In the third act Gustavus uses yet another disguise because he is hosting a magnificent masked ball. But Anckarström, now united with those plotting the king's death, will penetrate this final disguise and be avenged on the man who he believes has betrayed his trust.

Verdi and Censorship

For much of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as Italy; the places where Giuseppe Verdi lived and created his operas were a handful of small states and city-states mostly ruled from faraway Vienna. The imperial Austrian government maintained its tenuous control over its Italian holdings by exercising strict control over any means by which large groups of people might communicate, such as newspapers and theaters. Verdi, a great Italian patriot, was constantly running afoul of governmental and religious censors who objected to much of the action he wanted to portray onstage. The censors had a field day with Un ballo in maschera. Originally scheduled to be produced in Naples, the opera proved unacceptable because it portrayed the successful assassination of a monarch.

Eventually Ballo was produced, but in Rome, two years later, and with the oddest rewrite: it was set in Boston, in the 1600s, where the governor (Count Riccardo) visits a black fortune-teller named Ulrica, woos the wife of his friend Renato, and dies when Renato falls in with two resentful murderers named Samuel and Tom. Although the Boston setting makes nonsense of a carefully written plot, it was in this version that Ballo attained worldwide fame. Various productions have tried other settings, but the original Swedish setting is preferable.


Origins of This Story...

The Real Gustavus III

Like many of Giuseppe Verdi's operas, Un ballo in maschera is a tragedy, but a tragedy inspired by history. Gustavus III, king of Sweden from 1771 to 1792, was indeed a popular young king: a brave warrior who led his armies to victory against Prussia and Russia; a poet whose reign saw a flowering of Swedish art and literature (Gustavus built Sweden's first opera house and wrote the first Swedish operas); and an attractive, indiscriminate lover with a sexual preference for men. Gustavus, who had spent much of his youth in France, was a model Enlightenment king: he opposed the French Revolution but worked hard in Sweden to create an equitable state. In fact, enemies he made by curbing the power of the aristocrats eventually killed him, at that fatal masked ball at the Stockholm Opera House on March 16, 1792. It was a dispossessed naval officer, Captain Anckarström, who shot the king with a gun filled with rusty nails. Gustavus suffered greatly and died thirteen days later. Although the king pardoned his assassins, Ribbing and De Horn were exiled and Anckarström chopped to bits.

The Battle of Love and Duty

The crux of the opera's plot is the struggle within Gustavus—and within Amelia—between the passion they feel for one another and their responsibilites, he to his close friend and advisor, she to her husband. Amelia is the only character in the opera with no historical source; she was invented by the great French playwright Eugène Scribe. Her dilemma comes from hundreds of years of French theater, where the battle between love and duty had inspired thousands of operas and plays over the years. Scribe, who wrote some 400 plays and libretti during the decades he dominated French theater, added this element to the story of the historical king of Sweden in his Bal Masqué, a French opera of 1833. But Verdi thought he could do better, and collaborated with the brilliant Italian poet Antonio Somma on their Ballo in maschera. Verdi's version, based on Scribe's plot, has forever eclipsed the earlier versions.

Enlightened Rationalism

Gustavus III was assassinated in the 1790s, toward the climax of what has become known as the Enlightenment. These were the glory days of reason; the age of scientists such as Gabriel Fahrenheit, Anders Celsius, and Benjamin Franklin, and a time when well-meaning Christians noticed that their exciting new scientific method, the triumph of logic, brought established beliefs in faith and religion into question. Gustavus himself, who grew up in France, was familiar with the great writers and thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the opera he is a bright, likeable figure: a trickster who can use disguises to outsmart his enemies; a skeptic who laughs at Mme. Arvidson and her superstitious clients; and an enlightened monarch, not a tyrant, whose political motto is "Power is only worthy when, without corruption, it dries the tears of its subjects." The real Gustavus, in fact, supported the American colonies in their enlightened rejection of British tyranny.

Superstitious Romanticism

Intellectual historians usually speak of the Enlightenment giving way to the age of Romanticism. The trend is most visible in literature. In the eighteenth century, satire was king, but in the nineteenth century its place was usurped by gloomy stories about doomed young love set in ruined castles full of ghosts. In Ballo in maschera, Verdi (and Scribe) dramatize the struggle between these approaches to life. Gustavus may laugh at Mme. Arvidson, but all her prophecies come true. Either this opera tells the story of a man trying—and failing—to outwit fate and death itself; or, as in classic textbook tragedy, the man's greatest enemy is inside himself. In the first act, Gustavus outwits and defeats the illogical forces of faith and superstition represented by the fortune-teller. But in the second act, when he succumbs to the illogical force of passionate emotion lurking in him, he mortally offends Anckarström and turns his best friend into his assassin.

Carnival

If Mlle. Arvidson is a figure for the dark, Dionysian forces that our bright Apollonian King Gustavus is trying to deny, what about Oscar? Gustavus's servant is a little ball of energetic fun who never slows down to think very hard. In fact, it is he who dooms Gustavus by describing his final costume to the murderous Anckarström. Oscar is in his element in the opera's final scene, the costume ball (which he's been talking about since the first scene). The real Gustavus was in fact killed at such a masked ball, a favorite pastime of late eighteenth-century Europeans. Developing out of the pre-Lenten festival of Mardi Gras, carnival became a way of life in some places, particularly Venice. Carnival revellers would often dress up as characters from commedia dell'arte, a sort-of live-action medieval Italian version of Looney Tunes. To this day you can buy traditional carnival masks all over Venice. Gustavus was exposed to carnival-style parties in Paris and encouraged them in Stockholm, where they caught on with teenagers such as Oscar. Actually, the character of Oscar is Scribe's nod at the real Gustavus's romantic interest in young men—and Verdi's nod at the many court jesters populating the plays of Verdi's favorite playwright, William Shakespeare.

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