Returned from Exile: Verdi's 'A Masked Ball' in Stockholm

WOO-1333-MaskedBall-250bBeginning 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 its members 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.

In 1859, when Verdi composed his opera Un Ballo in Maschera -- A Masked Ball -- Italian authorities took issue with its tale of illicit love and murder. Forbidden passion and bloody homicide weren't the problem. The difficulty was with the opera's setting, and historical background. The story was set in 18th-century Sweden, in the court of King Gustav III -- and it was based on actual events, the historic King Gustav's assassination. But portraying members of a European royal court engaging in treachery and regicide wouldn't fly with the Italian censors -- even if the setting was in faraway Sweden.

So, changes were demanded. A king can't be killed onstage, said the censors, so that character would have to be a lowly duke. And even if he was only a duke, he couldn't fall in love with his best friend's wife -- she had to be the friend's unmarried sister instead. Also, this duke couldn't live anywhere near Sweden -- that would bring the story too close to reality, and might stir up trouble.

Rather than make all those individual adjustments, Verdi "fixed" the opera by moving the entire story to, of all places, Massachusetts. So, instead of being banned from Boston, Verdi's opera was exiled to Boston!

All of that makes the production featured here on World of Opera a bit of a homecoming, not to mention a sign of changed times. Host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's A Masked Ball from Stockholm -- the very place 19th-century authorities found unacceptable as the opera's setting. The production also features the original Swedish locale and characters, including King Gustav III and his pal Anckarström -- the king's murderer both in the opera and in real life.

To complete the irony, the production is staged at the very theater where the historic King Gustav met his end, the Royal Swedish Opera, which Gustav himself founded and were he was killed, in the foyer, in 1792. The stars are tenor Andrea Caré as Gustav, baritone Frederik Zetterström as Anckarström, and soprano Emma Vetter in a stirring performance as Amelia.