Staging of 'A Masked Ball' recalls Verdi's struggle with naysayers


March 03, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Censorship and complaints about it are constants -- although their intensity has varied throughout history and not necessarily in proportion to each other. Recently, we have come through a particularly intense period in regard to censorship -- or at least to complaints about it -- but one need only look to mid-19th century Italy to see a time when censorship genuinely affected art.

This all comes to mind because the Baltimore Opera Company will present Guiseppe Verdi's "A Masked Ball" this week and next at the Lyric Opera House. The BOC will present the work in the setting the composer and his librettist, Antonio Somma, originally intended -- the royal court of Sweden in the late 18th century. But for years this opera was (and continues to be) heard in a ludicrously inappropriate version that places the action in Colonial Boston. In that version, along with characters named Riccardo, Renato and Amelia, are conspirators named Sam and Tom.

The Italy in which Verdi and Somma worked was a land divided into several states, much of it under the domination of France and Austria. It was a veritable powder keg because of the tensions between its repressive regimes and the drives toward liberty and Italian unity.

The French Revolution was within living memory and the failed European revolutions of 1848 were all too recent. The hair-trigger reactions of the government censors of the time were heightened by the attempt in 1858 by an Italian nationalist to assassinate Napoleon III of France. The censors were not about to tolerate anything that smacked of liberal sentiments, and certainly not from Verdi, who was as well-known and as popular in his time as Kevin Costner or Bill Cosby are in ours.

Verdi and Somma had chosen a subject that had already been written about by the French playwright Eugene Scribe almost 50 years earlier and that had been used by several other opera composers. The story was a fiction based on the life of Gustavus III, who ruled Sweden from 1771 until his murder at a masked ball in 1792. These facts were fleshed out by Somma (after Scribe) with the stuff of melodrama: the noble, self-sacrificing king; his counselor and best friend, Count Anckarstroem; the latter's beautiful wife, Amelia, who is drawn as irresistibly to the king as he is to her; Ulrica, the gloomy messenger of destiny; and Oscar, the charming page who is Ulrica's unconscious agent.

This was too much for the censors of the kingdom of Naples, whose San Marco Theater had commissioned "A Masked Ball." The censors rejected "A Masked Ball" because of these issues:

* Politics and history: An assassination with a modern pistol of a king in a European country at the time of the French Revolution might be regarded as sending the wrong sort of person the wrong sort of message.

* Morality: A story of adultery in which a noblewoman fails, in intent if not in deeds, to behave as a wife should.

* Religion: Somma's libretto emphasizes the force of destiny and the whims of chance through the nature-worshiping seer Ulrica and the choice of an assassin by drawing lots; it also allows a character to seek relief from guilt by recourse to a magical herb. For the censors, this called the Christian principles of individual responsibility and free will into doubt and it questioned the efficacy of -- by suggesting an alternative to -- the sacrament of confession.

The censors made suggestions that amounted to a demand for a wholesale reconstruction. They wanted the plot changed so that it dealt with the struggles between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in 14th century Florence. Verdi would have nothing to do with this. After several suits and countersuits by the theater and the composer, Verdi succeeded in producing his opera in Rome, where he satisfied the papal censors by moving the king across the ocean and making him a mere governor and by transforming the modern pistol into an old-fashioned dagger.

"A Masked Ball" survived these changes, of course. But if thissues that plagued Verdi and Somma almost 150 years ago now seem small, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if a composer and librettist were to turn their attention today to Gustavus III. He was, in fact, a liberalizing monarch -- he instituted freedom of the press and of religion -- who was a homosexual who liked cavalrymen as much as Catherine the Great did. Gustavus may have been murdered because of a homosexual affair; and his page, on whom Verdi's charming Oscar is based, was a Caribbean black who was the King's favorite lover.

Jesse Helms, eat your heart out.

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