PRINT October 1987


A masked ball. From Charles Osborne's Verdi: A Life in the Theatre.

Charles Osborne’s biography Verdi: A Life in the Theatre, featuring a generous selection of letters from the composer’s voluminous correspondence, will be published in January by Alfred A. Knopf, New York at 384 pages, with 16 pages of photographs. The following prepublication excerpt describes the genesis of Un ballo in maschera (A masked ball).

VERDI PREPARED TO compose Gustavo III di Svezia, and asked Antonio Somma to turn Scribe’s French libretto into an Italian one. Somma agreed, but added that he would prefer to do it anonymously or pseudonymously, perhaps not wanting to be involved in any trouble with the censors which might arise from an attempt to show on stage the assassination of a reigning monarch.

The story of how a libretto about Gustave Ill of Sweden eventually became an opera about a Governor of Boston in colonial times is a long and complex one. . . . Even before Somma had finished his first draft of the libretto, Torelli had written from Naples to Verdi, informing him that it was highly unlikely that the subject of Gustave’s assassination would be approved by the censors. Verdi . . . replied mildly that he thought it should not be too difficult to transfer the locale and change the names of the characters, “But now that the librettist is hard at work,” he added, “it is best to let him finish his libretto, and then later we can think about the changing of the subject. It’s a shame! To have to give up the pomp of a court like that of Gustave Ill! And it will be quite difficult to find a Duke of the stature of this Gustave. Poor poets and poor composers!”

. . . Meanwhile, the Neapolitan censorship was becoming more strict in its requirements. On 17 November [1857] Somma wrote to Verdi:

Yesterday, your letter of the 14th reached me, with the memorandum from the Neapolitan censor enclosed. They will allow the action to be placed, it says, anywhere in the north except for Sweden or Norway. But in which century’ must the action take place? Give me some idea about this. To find a period that will justify a readiness to believe in witches, as requested by His Excellency the Censor, will not be easy. . . .

Somma suggested setting the opera in Pomerania, a region of Prussia, in the twelfth century. However, Verdi replied:

I really think the twelfth century is a little too remote for our Gustave. It is such a raw and brutal period, especially in those countries, that it seems a serious contradiction to use it as a setting for characters conceived in the French style as Gustave and Oscar are, and for such a splendid drama based on customs nearer our own time. . . .

The libretto was completed early in December. [By] the Christmas holidays . . . Verdi had finished a first draft of the music. On 14 January 1858, accompanied by Giuseppina and their Maltese terrier, Loulou, Verdi arrived in Naples to deliver the opera to the management of the Teatro San Carlo; it was now called La vendetta in domino and set in seventeenth-century Pomerania.

Behind the scenes, however, trouble was brewing for the new opera. The censors were not satisfied with the fictitious names given to King Gustave ill and his assassin, Captain Ankarstroem, or the change of country and century. In Paris, a bomb had been thrown at Napoleon Ill on his way to the Opéra, an incident which increased the nervousness of the Neapolitan monarchy and its censors. They were most reluctant to approve the subject of the opera, however much its provenance was disguised. . . . From Naples on 7 February Verdi wrote to Somma:

I’m drowning in a sea of troubles. It’s almost certain the censors will forbid our libretto. I don’t know why. I was quite right to warn you to avoid every sentence, every word which could offend. They began by objecting to certain phrases and words, and then entire scenes and finally the whole subject. They made the following suggestions but only as a special favour:

(1) Change the hero into an ordinary gentleman, with no suggestion of sovereignty.

(2) Change the wife into a sister.

(3) Alter the scene with the fortune-teller, and put it back to a time when people believed in such things.

(4) No ball.

(5) The murder to be off-stage.

(6) Omit the scene of the drawing of the name.

And so on, and so on, and so on!!

As you can imagine, these changes are out of the question, so no more opera. So the subscribers won’t pay the last two installments, so the government will withdraw the subsidy, so the directors will sue everyone, and already threaten me with damages of 50,000 ducats. What hell! Write and give me your opinion of all this. . . .

Meanwhile Verdi had been making his own feelings known to the San Carlo management. To the theatre’s secretary, Vincenzo Torelli, he wrote on 14 February:

. . . Put the action back five or six centuries?! What an anachronism! Cut out the scene where the name of the assassin is chosen by drawing lots?! But this is the most powerful and original situation in the drama, and you expect me to give it up? I have already told you, I will not commit the monstrosities that were committed here with Rigoletto. Such things happen because I cannot prevent them. Nor is it any use talking to me about success. If one or two or three numbers, here and there, are applauded, that is not enough to make an opera. On artistic matters I have my ideas, my convictions, which are very clear and very precise, and I cannot, indeed must not, renounce them.

In an attempt to solve the problem, the San Carlo management prepared an altered libretto which met the censor’s requirements, called Adelia degli Adimari and set in fourteenth-century Florence. Verdi regarded this as a total mutilation of the drama, and thus of his music:

La vendetta in domino consists of 884 verses; in Adelia _297 have been changed, many have been added, and a great many have been deleted. I ask further if, in this drama written by the management, there exists, as there does in mine,

The title? No.
The librettist? No.
The period? No.
The place? No.
The characters? No.
The situations? No.
The drawing of lots? No.
The ball? No.

No composer who respects his art and himself could or should dishonour himself by accepting, as a subject for music which was written to a completely different plot, these oddities which distort the most obvious principles of dramaturgy and constitute an outrage to the artist’s conscience._

The San Carlo threatened legal action against Verdi, whose lawyer issued a counter-claim. The case was settled out of court, with Verdi the winner in that the contract was dissolved, and he was allowed to retain La vendetta in domino as his own property to offer elsewhere. . . .

Verdi . . . told Somma [that he preferred] the opera to be staged rather than not staged, and Rome was, in his view, preferable to other cities. The censor had now approved the subject and most of the details of the plot, but was insisting that the action be set somewhere outside Europe. “What would you think of North America at the time of the English domination? Or, if not America, then some other place, the Caucasus perhaps?” Verdi asked his librettist, who wearily agreed to the action being set at the end of the seventeenth century in Boston, Massachusetts, a colony where the Salem trials of 1692 clearly showed that belief in witches was then still alive.

There were still, however, several of the censor’s queries to be dealt with. On 6 August Verdi wrote to a now completely exasperated Somma:

Arm yourself with courage and patience. Particularly with patience. As you will see from the enclosed letter . . . , the censor has sent a list of all the lines he disapproves of. If, on reading this, you feel a rush of blood to the head, lay it down and try it again after you have eaten and slept well. . . . The lines and expressions deleted by the censor are numerous, but it could have been worse. . . . Don’t worry about the gallows in Act II, I’ll try to obtain permission for it. Cheer up, alter the lines marked, and try to arrange that you have fifteen or twenty days free during the carnival season so that you can come to Rome where I hope we shall have a good time together.

In September Somma sent Verdi a revised libretto with all the required changes made. Gustave III of Sweden was now Riccardo, “Conte di Warvick” [sic] and Governor of Boston, and his assassin was no longer a Swedish army officer but Riccardo’s secretary, Renato, a Creole. The fortune-teller was a negress, and the conspirators, Counts Horn and Ribbing, became Samuel and Tom, enemies of the Governor. The opera took its new title, Un ballo in maschera, from the sub-title of Scribe’s original libretto, Gustave III ou Le bal masqué. The libretto was now finally approved by the censors, and Verdi put the finishing touches to his score in the second half of September. . . .

Out of all the censorship difficulties, the alterations, reworkings and compromises, one of Verdi’s finest operas was born. Un ballo in maschera shows, musically and dramatically, none of the scars one might in the circumstances have expected to find. It is one of the composer’s middle-period masterpieces, a work whose characters are rich in humanity, and whose melodies combine the warmth and vigour of the old Verdi with the lightness and elegance that had entered his work with La traviata. Somma’s libretto, if one forgets history and King Gustave III of Sweden, is tautly constructed and ripe for music, though flowery in style and less direct in manner than the work of Verdi’s more professional collaborators such as Piave and Cammarano. The music which clothes the libretto is not only sumptuously scored but also perfectly attuned to the style of its subject and impeccable in character. In addition to the drama of the events, there is a great deal of laughter in the score, ranging from the quick gaiety of Oscar, the page, through Riccardo’s amused irony, to the mocking taunts of the conspirators, all depicted with Verdi’s characteristic melodic prodigality.

© 1987 Charles Osborne