Exiled to Massachusetts: Verdi's 'Un Ballo en Maschera'

WOO-1511-sameBeginning in the late 1800's with a crusading committee known as the Watch and Ward Society, Boston became known as a place where it paid to watch one's moral "P's and Q's." The Society railed against what they regarded as offensive literature and entertainment -- ranging from Voltaire to Walt Whitman -- and the phrase "Banned in Boston" became so familiar that savvy publishers began using it as a marketing tool.

All of that makes the history of Giuseppe Verdi's once-controversial opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) seem more than a little bit ironic.

Verdi composed the opera in the late 1850's using a libretto called "Gustave III." The story was based on the  real-life assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden, in 1792, and the opera was meant for a premiere in Naples.

But the censors frowned on the depiction of a king being assassinated in his own court. They also took a dim  view of Verdi's major addition to the story; in the opera, the assassin is an aggrieved husband who finds his wife alone with the king, and in a compromising position.

The censors banned the opera, pending some drastic changes. They said the king had to become a mere duke. The story had to be reset to take place hundreds of years earlier. And the woman this duke fell for couldn't be his best friend's wife. Instead, she would be the friend's unmarried sister. Fed up with the Neopolitan demands, Verdi decided to move the opera's debut to Rome, but censors there were no friendlier.

So, to get the opera to the stage, Verdi and his librettist decided to keep their story but change the setting. The opera's hero became an English count, serving as a colonial governor, and the whole story was moved across the Atlantic to Massachusetts. Apparently, when set in the new world, illicit love and murder were perfectly acceptable -- and the censors' objections were promptly withdrawn. Instead of being "Banned in Boston," Verdi's drama was exiled to Boston.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents A Masked Ball from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. The highly-accomplished cast features soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia, with tenor Joseph Calleja and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Riccardo and Renato, the political rivals who are both in love with her, in a production led by conductor Daniel Oren.