SFOpera - Un Ballo in Maschera: A Political Opera—but in a Bigger Way than You Might Imagine

Un Ballo in Maschera: A Political Opera—but in a Bigger Way than You Might Imagine

This essay was first published in the October 2014 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine

Verdi's active involvement with the Italian unification and independence movement, the Risorgimento, has labeled him a "political" composer. He is, moreover, valued as a political artist to feel good about—his patriotism is convincingly sincere and refreshingly non-toxic. One can see a parallel between the fortunes of the Risorgimento and expressions of patriotism in Verdi’s operas between the years 1842 and 1859. There are rising nationalist sentiments embodied in and fueled on by the choruses and solos of such works as Nabucco (1842), Ernani (1844), Giovanna d'Arco (1845), and Attila (1846). The wars and revolutions of 1848–49 came close to achieving the long-held dream of Italian nationhood, and Verdi's response and contribution was La Battaglia di Legnano (1849), a ripsnorter of a rabble-rouser, and a much-underrated opera that should not be written off today as a mere propaganda piece. The 1848–49 explosions failed in Italy, however, and the peninsula returned to a tense truce. In this period, Verdi's work looked deeper into the psychological dimensions of its characters, with spectacular success (Rigoletto [1851], Il Trovatore [1853], La Traviata [1853]). Verdi's overt association with the Risorgimento returned in a huge way in 1859, as the Kingdom of Italy finally emerged. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had managed to wrest the rich province of Lombardy (including the great city of Milan) from the Austrian Empire through a combination of war and diplomacy. The wily Prime Minister of Piedmont, Camillo Benso di Cavour, was close to convincing Italians throughout the peninsula that their best hope for national unity and independence lay in union with his nation, and Italians were beginning to agree. Even those of anti-monarchical leanings and those from distant regions such as Sicily were calling for unity under the Piedmontese King Vittorio Emanuele II as King of Italy. Somebody realized that this formula, Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia spelled the acrostic V.E.R.D.I., and instantly the walls of Rome were covered with “Viva VERDI!” just as Un Ballo in Maschera prepared its premiere run in that city. Beyond his music, now even Verdi’s name was glued onto the national consciousness. In several ways, Ballo had already been political before the Rome premiere. The semi-historical tale of the assassination of a king at a masked ball infuriated the censor in Naples, where Verdi had originally been commissioned to write a new opera, and had been morphed into a tale of governor of Colonial Boston (at a masked ball!) to gain approval at Rome. But that background only explains why Ballo was political in 1859, rather than addressing why it is possible to call it intensely political today. The fact is that the true political nature of Ballo is much deeper than an acrostic: it shows us that the essential political core in Verdi’s works is much deeper than is generally presumed.

Verdi’s death in 1901 was a moment of national mourning and a rare moment of concordance among Italians. The poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (who would later prove to be a political problem of his own) perfectly summed up the reason Verdi’s life, and death, had such a universal impact: “Pianse e canto per tutti,” “He sang and wept for all.” It was a perceptive as well as pithy comment. Not only does Verdi’s music have a virtually global appeal, but the subjects he depicted so shrewdly show an understanding of human personalities and motivations that can be compared with such thinkers as Chekhov, Durkheim, and even Freud, among others, in their respective fields. This penetrating brilliance can be explored particularly well in Un Ballo in Maschera.

By the time Verdi composed Ballo, he was at a point in his artistic and personal evolution at which he could perceive and chose to depict multiple points of view. He had always the ability to feel compassion for several characters, even those in opposition to his protagonists. It is one of the most appealing features of Verdi’s works, and one that sets him apart from others (most obviously, his contemporary Wagner, whose every opera—even his great comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—must contain an evildoer for the audience to hate as counterpoint to the admirable heroes). While Verdi could certainly create an awesome villain when he wanted to (Di Luna in Il Trovatore, and of course Iago in Otello [1887]), it is remarkable how many of his operas lack an actual bad guy: La Traviata; Aida (1871); Falstaff (1893), et al.. Even elsewhere, the lines between good and evil are as blurry as they often are in real life: Rigoletto; Don Carlos (1867); Simon Boccanegra (1881).

Although it’s dangerous to draw too direct a connection between personal and artistic biography, careful consideration of both can be illuminating. By 1859, Verdi’s hopes and dreams for his country had matured and were even showing signs of rot. The idealism of youth had been tempered by the realities of life. Verdi had previously been an ardent republican (that is, anti-monarchist). Many of his operas in the early years (Nabucco, Ernani, Giovanna d’Arco, and especially Macbeth and Rigoletto) form a perfect anthology of “Royals Behaving Badly.” In 1859, republican Italians were acceding to the Kingdom of Italy notion, choosing the possible over the ideal. Verdi accepted the convenient association of his name with Vittorio Emanuele’s, and in Un Ballo in Maschera, produced that same year, the lead character is a sympathetic, nuanced king. It is not a change of attitude as much as a broadening of perspective.

Not only is there no real “bad guy” in Ballo (Anckarström is driven to his crime and immediately regrets it), but love of country and calls-to-arms are not presented in such black-and-white terms as they are in earlier operas, culminating in La Battaglia di Legnano. It is notable that in this decisive year of 1859, the year in which Cavour laid down his challenge to Austria once and for all, Verdi should respond with an opera rich in nuance and motivational ambiguity. Later that year, as Austrian troops withdrew from the area near Verdi’s farm at Sant’Agata (after dynamiting the city of Piacenza as a vile farewell gesture), he wrote:

“Finally they have left! or at least they have withdrawn, and may our lucky star take them even further away, until—driven beyond the Alps—they go off to their own climate, their own sky, which I hope is even clearer, beautiful, more resplendent than ours.” [Verdi to Clara Maffei, June 23rd, 1859].

This says a lot about Verdi at this juncture: he is angry at injustice, insistent about his goals, and ready to savor a moment of triumph. But nowhere is he petty or condescending. The Austrians simply have to go because Italy is not Austria, not because Italians were better (he was far too judicious an observer of his own people to believe that) nor because Austrians were inferiors. They simply needed to go and enjoy their own distant home in good health. Verdi always had the ability to perceive that there were several sides to any story: by 1859 he could express a truly universal vision (“he sang and wept for all…”)

Can this actually be perceived in Verdi’s music? Yes. The score (beyond merely the libretto) of Un Ballo in Maschera reveals a profound ability to follow multiple points of view and in fact presents radical and prescient methods of exploring complex situations. Let’s look at Ulrica the witch in Act I.

In the first scene, the Chief Justice presents the king, Gustavus, with an accusation against a witch, Ulrica, who is deluding the people with her crafts, or with her frauds of witchcraft. Oscar the page boy (sung by a high soprano, and a thoroughly unique creation within Verdi’s output, both musically and dramatically) says the old witch is just fun and games, and that the king should go incognito to see her for himself. Twin impulses of the king, caution and daring, are expressed by external characters. The entire court goes to the witch’s den of iniquity. Verdi’s treatment of the supernatural is always a curious matter. Many commentators found him lacking in his ability to portray it. They have missed the point. Whenever Verdi ventures into an encounter with the supernatural, in any opera from 1842’s Nabucco to 1893’s Falstaff, the focus of his interest is never the supernatural phenomenon itself, but always the characters’ reaction to it. Ghosts, goblins, and even deities are only important as motivators to the most truly profound (and often scary) force in the universe, human emotional psychology. Ulrica’s aria, summoning the spirits of hell, is a bit self-consciously ghoulish—but only a bit. The music successfully supports the multiplicity of reactions to it from the characters on the stage—by turns frightened, skeptical, annoyed, and amused. Amelia, the king’s love interest (and, inconveniently, the wife of his best friend and courtier Anckarström) will ask Ulrica for a cure for her illicit love of the king. Therefore, the prime purpose of the variety of impressions made by Ulrica’s music will be to inform Amelia’s and Gustavo’s subsequent actions: Amelia will be frightened when she follows Ulrica’s instructions to pick herbs at the gallows at midnight; Gustavus will be careless about the dangers of following her there and attempting to make love to her. Her fears and his defiance will come to a fatal conclusion in the subsequent act. They are not living out the prophecies of Ulrica: they are living out their reactions to them.

All this must be, and is, detectable in the music in the Ulrica scene. To be concerned with whether or not we in the audience are genuinely spooked by Ulrica’s aria is a mistake. She embodies a set of projections from Oscar, the Chief Magistrate, the community, and (most importantly) Gustavus and Amelia.

Here’s what’s really interesting: we then get to see and hear all of those characters as perceived by Ulrica. When Gustavus’s identity is revealed and he’s acclaimed by the people, the act concludes with a rousing patriotic chorus, a sort of national anthem composed in broad strokes and bright colors. In fact, it is too patriotic, martial, and naïve in this context—it might have made sense in a clearly patriotic chorus in an earlier opera such as Giovanna d’Arco. Taken at face value, it is illogical that the people on the stage would be so inflamed with love of country when finding their king disguised in a witch’s hut. The only way this music makes psychological sense is if we understand it as Ulrica’s perception of the people. This outsider with a separate perspective (whether or not she is truly clairvoyant or just an accomplished faker—a point that, significantly, Verdi never deigns to answer) sees hollowness and a resort to form and habit in the overblown expression of patriotism. Sometimes, noble patriotic music can be a delusion, a lie. Our experience of the music’s meaning is morphed by how we understand the characters’ perceptions of it. In other words, facts actually change by being perceived. It is a musical analog of the Uncertainty Principle, which makes Verdi the musical progenitor of Heisenberg.

This is best explored in Act III, Scene 1—a scene that makes a good case for being the best Verdi ever wrote (along with Act IV, Scene 1 of Don Carlos… and all of Act II of Otello…). Amelia’s and Gustavus’s secret (if unconsummated) love is now known, and Anckaström is furious and humiliated. In their home, he threatens his wife with death. She begs for one last chance to bid farewell to their child, in an understated (and somewhat calming to her homicidal husband—does Amelia know she will have this effect on him?) aria with a notable solo cello accompaniment. Verdi’s command of the cello has often been noted (Act IV, Scene 1 of Don Carlos)—here it has the effect of focusing the audience’s collective ear on a single instrument, a minimal base for what is to follow. Anckaström grants her wish and dismisses her, looking at Gustavus’s portrait and realizing in the great aria “Eri tu” that Gustavus, not Amelia, is the true culprit. Two courtiers who hate Gustavus for their own reasons, Ribbing and Horn, appear, summoned by Anckarström. The three decide to kill Gustavo. Their trio is martial and exhilarating. It would not have been out of place in Ernani, to whose thrilling chorus “Si ridesti il leon di Castiglia,” to which it bears outward resemblance. But here it is distilled into a trio of two basses and a baritone, singing in private, so to speak. These are actual individuals rousing themselves to shed blood: there is no element of public grandstanding (unlike the Ballo Act I choral finale with Ulrica). Amelia returns, suspecting (but not knowing) what the men are plotting. Anckarström compels his wife to draw names from an urn… she pulls his name. The trio is recapitulated with more thundering orchestra and Amelia’s soprano voice added. From her point of view, the low men’s voices form a sort of anxious gut-rumbling under her fears, which are expressed in full soprano voice. From their point of view, her high soprano voice caps off their resolution to bloodshed (a strange-sounding idea that nevertheless makes perfect operatic sense—Wagner memorably encapsulated the spirit of war in loud women’s voices in his “Ride of the Valkyries,” composed in that same decade). It is a thrilling moment and any other opera composer would have been well satisfied to end the scene there. For Verdi, it’s merely a set up for the coup de grace. The chatty Oscar, (high soprano), enters to announce the masked ball of the title, singing a frilly minuet-like ditty. C Major never sounded so harrowing. The context of the regicidal plot turns the pretty tune into the aural equivalent of a tattoo needle hitting the skin. The thing itself is changed by the act of perceiving it, a supreme moment of Verdi-as-Heisenberg.

It is also the true basis for the term “political” so often used for Verdi. It’s really not about a unified Italy any more—global audiences today cannot be expected to get excited about the Risorgimento, for better or worse. It’s about politics in its true meaning of “affairs of the community [polis],” which has the notion of “the many [poly]” embedded in it. This is important for us in the audience, beyond appreciating how extraordinarily smart (in addition to everything else) Verdi was. If you can see things from more than one point of view, you have a more complete purview of the human experience. That much is tautological. But to take that journey with Verdi, who was supremely capable of imbuing each of the multiple points of view with a convincing humanity (“… he sang and wept for all…”) is to experience the world with depth, true perception, and deep compassion. It is, in fact, the vantage point of a deity.

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