FOR MOST of his long creative life, Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian opera composer, fought with singers, librettists, conductors, producers and publishers to protect the spirit and music of his 26 operas. But never so hard as with the censors, his contemporary political and religious watchdogs who make Jesse Helms look like a patron of the arts.
Verdi's struggles for his opera, "A Masked Ball," being presented by the Baltimore Opera Company at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at the Lyric, are a classic case of the artist under siege. "I am in a sea of troubles," Verdi wrote his librettist, Antonio Somma, after the latest wave of changes forced by the censors in 1858.
Verdi (1813-1901) lost some battles but won the war. A bit of background: Opera in 19th century Italian cities was the entertainment -- TV, movies, sports rolled into one. Provincial Italian governments and the church controlled these popular stages. The revolutions of 1848 made authorities hyper-sensitive republican troublemakers, Verdi being one of the worst.
European royalty was nervous, especially after an Italian tried to kill Napoleon III in 1858 by tossing a bomb under his carriage in Paris. (It would later turn out that Verdi apparently gave money designed for the would-be assassin's escape from French secret police.) Verdi's opera is based on the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden at a masked ball in 1792.
Naples censors, in league with Neapolitan monarchy and rival composer Saverio Mercadante, forced Verdi to change the setting from Sweden to faraway Boston and the victim from the king to Riccardo, Count of Warwick in Colonial America. (Riccardo?)
Many other alterations were made in the plot in which Riccardo loves Amelia, the wife of Renato. Mary Jane Philips Matz, a Verdi scholar, noted that of 884 lines in the libretto, 297 were changed. Verdi fought in and out of court. Authorities wanted to delete a gallows hill, for instance, because governments didn't want people to think they executed citizens. Verdi kept it in and it stayed.
The censors wanted Amelia to be a sister of Renato, not his wife, because adultery with Riccardo couldn't be shown on stage. The black fortune-teller Ulrica could not be black, Renato could not be a Creole. There would be no dancing on stage. Verdi prevailed in these matters, but the fight over many matters seemed endless.
It's important to remember Verdi was as much dramatist as musician. For him, plot, character and some of the best music designed for voice are one. Rarely critical of other composers' music, Verdi considered boring, unrealistic situations a sin second only to compromising one's artistic integrity. Of Gounod, he wrote a friend, "Gounod is a very fine musician, France's leading composer, but he lacks dramatic fire."
Verdi finally opened "A Masked Ball" not in Naples but in Rome Feb. 17, 1859, with the Boston stage setting. It would be 76
years before the three-act opera was performed, in Copenhagen, with the originally intended setting in Stockholm. That's the version Baltimore hears Saturday and at 8:15 p.m. March 13 and March 15 and at 3 p.m. March 17.
Stefka Evstatieva, a soprano from Rousse, Bulgaria, sings Amelia in the middle of a fast American track this season. She's already sung Jaroslavna in "Prince Igor" (in Dallas), Maddalena in "Andrea Chenier" (The Met) and Santuzza in "Cavalleria Rusticana" (Miami). She plans later 1991 roles in "Don Carlo" (Denver and Washington) and "La Forza Del Destino" (New Orleans).
Also making her Baltimore Opera debut is soprano Judy Berry, the Baltimore Opera vocal competition winner in 1989, singing one of Verdi's favorite roles, the page Oscar.
Other singers are Venezuelan tenor Ruben Dominguez as Gustav III (Riccardo in the original), American baritone George Fortune as Ankerstrom (Renato), Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mariana Paunova as Ulrica, and basses James Stith and Stephen Kirchgraber as Counts Ribbing and Horn (Samuel and Tom).
Cal Stewart Kellogg of the Washington Opera will conduct the Baltimore Opera Orchestra in the new production created with the Cincinnati Opera. Michael Harrison is general director. Tickets are $15-$70. Call 685-0692.
Baltimore Opera's last production this season is Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" April 20, 24, 26 and 28. Next season three, rather than four, productions will be given: Verdi's "Don Carlo" opening Oct. 19; Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" March 21, 1992, and Mozart's "The Magic Flute" April 25.