Divided Loyalties

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Review of 'A Masked Ball' by Giuseppe Verdi, English National Opera, London

The new production of Verdi's 'A Masked Ball' (1859) by Spanish director Calixto Bieito has unleashed a wave of media hysteria. Not only has Bieito transferred the setting from 18th century Sweden to post-Franco Spain, but he seems almost to have invited controversy--the opera opens with a row of 14 conspirators sitting on the toilet.

Early on King Gustavus III's closest adviser Anckarstroem joins two conspirators on discovering that his wife Amelia and the king are in love. Both Gustavus and Amelia are torn between their love and their sense of duty. Gustavus decides to resolve his inner conflict by sending Anckarstroem and Amelia away. Despite a warning about an assassination plot, Gustavus attends the ball. Anckarstroem commits the murder, but with his dying words the king declares Amelia to be innocent and pardons his former friend. The people are in despair.

In the 1850s Verdi approached political questions as interwoven with personal conflicts. Italian nationalism was approaching its moment of fruition, and Verdi sought to deal with the new problems it faced. An important issue that runs through the works of this period is the kind of government that is desirable for modern nation-states. King Gustavus is portrayed as a fallible human being, someone the people can identify with. At the same time his sense of public duty triumphs over his private passions. Verdi was clearly hoping that the future unified kingdom of Italy would overcome the vestiges of feudal barbarism and usher in a new era of civilised democracy.

Bieito has attempted to draw a parallel between Gustavus and King Juan Carlos struggling to secure Spanish democracy against the forces of right wing militarism after Franco's death in 1975. While one can see a certain parallel between Italy before national unification and post-Franco Spain (in both cases there is a struggle between despotism and democracy), any other comparison seems arbitrary and heavy handed. No similarity between the characters of Juan Carlos and Gustavus is revealed in the production. Nor is the conflict at the heart of the opera, between private passion and public morality, shown to be relevant to the Spanish king.

There is something abstract and artificial about historical transpositions of this kind. A past work of art does not need to have a contemporary setting to be able to speak to a contemporary audience. Certain moral and political dilemmas have a universal applicability in the modern era. Conversely, an opera about post-Franco Spain would be far more interesting if it came from the pen of a contemporary Spanish composer. Despite this, Verdi's music resonates as melodiously and lyrically as ever in a work that is one of his dramatic masterpieces.