Between Passion and Duty

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Review of 'Un Ballo in Maschera' by Giuseppe Verdi, Royal Opera House, London

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), written in 1859, originally dealt with the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden but the Neapolitan censors, unhappy about anything that implied disrespect for the monarchy, forced Verdi to reset it in colonial New England. In this revived production, Italian director Mario Martone has relocated it again, a century later, to Boston during the American Civil War. King Gustavus is now Riccardo, governor of Boston.

The governor and Amelia, wife of his closest adviser and loyal friend Renato, are secretly in love. But they are torn between their mutual passion and their sense of duty. Ulrica, a fortune-teller, advises Amelia to take certain herbs that will exorcise her love. Riccardo decides to resolve his inner conflict by sending Renato and Amelia away. Despite a warning about an assassination plot, Riccardo attends a masked ball. Renato murders him, but with his dying words Riccardo declares Amelia innocent and pardons his former friend. The people are in despair at the loss of a popular leader.

In the wake of the Napoleonic wars Italy was divided into a patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. Verdi was a radical, fervent adherent of liberal nationalism and, in the course of a 50-year career, gave brilliant musical expression to Italian nationalist aspirations. In his early phase, the 1840s, many of his operas can be interpreted as allegories for the Italian struggle against the Austrians and other foreign oppressors.

In the 1850s, Verdi's middle period, he returned to political questions, but approached them as interwoven with personal conflicts, striking a balance with great conviction. 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 question of government - what kind is desirable for modern nation-states? Verdi presents us with a range of possible rulers. Governor Riccardo 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. He is a leader of vision and magnanimity.

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. Although staunchly anti-clerical and a republican, he came to believe that the best prospect for unification lay in accepting Victor Emanuel, the liberal king of Piedmont, as the monarch of a united Italy.

As for the production, while one can see a certain parallel between Italy prior to national unification in 1860 and colonial Boston - both witnessed a democratic struggle against monarchic despotism - transposing the action to the American Civil War seems arbitrary and heavy-handed. Nothing in the production indicates it is set during the decisive struggle between Northern capitalism and Southern slave society. The transposition is simply asserted in the programme notes. Despite this, the action itself is well handled, and Verdi's music resonates as melodiously and lyrically as ever in one of the dramatic masterpieces of the romantic operatic repertory.

There are splendid vocal performances from Richard Margison as Riccardo, Nina Stemme as Amelia, Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica and an outstanding rendering of Renato by Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Charles Mackerras's conducting is as vigorous and polished as ever, and draws the best out of a fine orchestra. The sets are convincing, with an original touch in the third act, a vast mirror forming the backdrop to the ballroom scene.