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Un ballo in maschera in a nutshell

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Everything you need to know about Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Un ballo in maschera is based on the real life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. Gustavus is a ruler plagued by his conscience and dedicated to his job, but has a guilty secret: he is in love with his closest friend Anckarstroem’s wife, Amelia. What’s more, he has enemies, and there is a murderous conspiracy brewing.  

Through visiting the fortune-teller Ulrica in disguise, Gustavus learns that Amelia loves him too, but also that the man who next shakes his hand (who turns out to be Anckarstroem) will be his killer. He follows Amelia later that night, and both confess their love, but Anckarstroem arrives and jumps to the conclusion that his best friend and his wife have been having an affair. He vows revenge and joins the plot to assassinate the king… 

For a full synopsis, visit the Un ballo in maschera webpage » The Story

Who are the characters?

Gustavus, King of Sweden  (tenor)
Count Anckarstroem, his best friend  (baritone)
Amelia, Anckarstroem’s wife  (soprano)
Ulrica, the fortune teller  (contralto)
Oscar, Gustavus' page  (high soprano – a trouser role)
Count Horn and Count Ribbing, lead conspirators  (basses)

There is also a full chorus who take the role of courtiers, conspirators, revellers and more. 

What is the music like?

Un ballo in maschera is full-on Italian opera and has it all – from dramatic arias to tense ensembles and rousing choruses. A highlight is the Act III tenor aria ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’ (‘But if I am forced to lose her’) sung by Gustavus after having resolved to give up Amelia and send her away – a melodious, yearning and highly emotional soliloquy which features themes first heard in the prelude. 

At the heart of the opera, however, is one of Verdi’s greatest and most impassioned love duets ‘Oh, qual soave brivido’ (‘Oh, what sweet thrill’), in which Gustavus and Amelia first confess their love for each other. Within the duet, both characters go on an emotional journey. They have different musical themes which represent the differences between them, until Amelia finally admits that she loves Gustavus and both tenor and soprano sing together, united and triumphant (but not for long!) in love. Hear it below from The Metropolitan Opera's 2012 production: 

What is this production like?

Tim Albery’s new production of Un ballo in maschera designed by Hannah Clark is set in the 1930s. 

Act I opens to the bleak, working world of the king, whose depressed state is matched by the muted Scandinavian colour palette. This contrasts with the world of Ulrica the fortune teller in Act II, a seedy bar whose underworld ambience is created by a surrounding dark red curtain. See costumes and colours for the ladies chorus, who play working women in this scene, below. 

During the climactic final ball scene, the party goers wear a 1930s interpretation of 18th century dress, with costumes almost identical to each other, making it deliberately impossible to tell who is who – a unique take on the 'masked' ball idea. 

Who was the composer?

Un ballo in maschera was written by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), one of the most famous operatic composers of all time with hits including Rigoletto, Aida, and the world’s most frequently performed opera La traviata.

Un ballo in maschera was Verdi's twenty-fifth (if we include a couple of revised versions) opera. The topic was chosen in 1857 as a well known story at the time (it had already been the subject of more than one opera!) and although the composition process was wrought with legal frustrations, Un ballo was a huge success when it finally premiered in Rome in 1859.

Did you know?

  • Un ballo in maschera went through several changes of scenario because of censorship – authorities first in Naples and later in Rome had an issue with the depiction of a monarch’s murder on stage. The action was therefore moved to 16th Century Stettin (present day Poland) with the king now merely a duke, but panic around the attempted assassination of Emperor Napoleon III in Paris, 1858 forced Verdi to relocate his opera again – this time far away to 17th Century North America, with his protagonist becoming the fictional ‘Governor of Boston’.
  • While the Boston version of the opera is still performed, it has been increasingly common throughout the 20th Century to revert to Verdi’s original, Swedish setting, as we are doing.
  • Un ballo in maschera played a role in the history of African-American civil rights – contralto Marian Anderson was cast as Ulrica (specified as a ‘negro’ in the Boston setting) in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 1955 production, becoming the first African-American to appear on stage at the Met and breaking the ‘colour barrier’.
  • This production marks the first time Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera has ever been staged at Opera North!

Un ballo in maschera is sung in Italian with English titles and lasts approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. For more info, visit the Un ballo in maschera webpage. Join in on social media with #ONBallo and #FatalPassions

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.


Images: 
Un ballo in maschera artwork © Opera North 2017
Costume design for the Act II ladies chorus © Hannah Clark
Portrait of Verdi by Giovanni Boldini © Giuseppe Verdi Foundation, Milan 

What you say

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Phil Miller said ago

Who’s “Emilio”? Sounds like a suitably modern twist to an age-old forbidden romance story! Lol (as the young people say) Opera North response: Thanks for pointing out our typo! This has now been corrected. Hope you enjoy Un ballo in maschera.

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