Censored opera sees the
Governments have long weighed in on art’s
acceptability, suppressing morally or politically objectionable
material. In the opera world Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo
in Maschera has received perhaps the harshest treatment. Until
January Ballo had never played Naples’s Teatro San Carlo,
the venue for which it was written. Indeed, the original, titled
Gustavo III, had not reached any stage until musicologist
Philip Gossett reconstructed it. Nearly 150 years after Italian
censors forced Verdi to radically alter the work, Gossett, the Robert
W. Reneker distinguished service professor in Music, has produced
a version that tries to capture the author’s intentions.
He faced a formidable task. Ballo,
as opera buffs know it, has a loyal following, and some members
of the Italian press have accused Gossett and his collaborator,
musicologist Ilaria Narici, of “rewriting Verdi.” Other
critics consider the censor-inspired changes improvements and see
little point in dredging up the original. As editor of The Works
of Giuseppe Verdi (University of Chicago Press) and the Edizione
critica delle opere di Gioachino Rossini, Gossett disagrees.
“Despite Verdi’s efforts to put a good face on the situation,
the interventions of the censors were weighty,” he wrote in
a letter to the magazine Opera. “Highly specific
text, politically, emotionally, liturgically, and erotically charged,
was replaced by blander and generic phrases.”
The saga of Verdi’s thwarted opera dates
to 1857, when the composer and his librettist, Antonio Somma, drafted
Gustavo III—based on the actual murder of an 18th-century
Swedish king at a masked ball—for the Teatro San Carlo. Even
before finishing, Verdi bowed to pressure from censors, who were
nervous about an assassination attempt on Naples’s monarch
two years earlier. He switched the victim to a duke, the setting
from Stockholm to the Prussian town of Stettin (now Szczecin), the
title to Una Vendetta in Domino, and made other minor compromises.
The next year Verdi set sail from Genoa to Naples
for rehearsals, carrying Vendetta’s complete skeleton
score, including all the vocal lines, the orchestral bass, and the
most significant instrumental lines. While he was at sea, an Italian
anarchist tried to kill Napoleon III in Paris (coincidentally, by
throwing a bomb under the emperor’s opera-bound carriage).
By the time Verdi disembarked, the political climate was so charged
that even the revised opera was deemed unacceptable.
Yet when the Neapolitans suggested adapting
the music to a completely different libretto, he was outraged and
withdrew his opera. “A composer who respects his art and himself
could not or would not dishonor himself,” Verdi fumed in paperwork
he prepared for a potential legal battle. “[T]hese absurdities…upset
the most obvious dramatic principles and offend the conscience of
After learning that a Roman theater had recently
staged a play about Gustave III, he saddled up for another round,
sending the original libretto—featuring the king, not the
duke—to the Roman impresario, who responded enthusiastically.
The papal censors, however, did not. Once again, Verdi balked at
the interference and finally received an ultimatum: he could keep
the European locale only if he made a long list of other changes.
Exasperated, Verdi set the opera in colonial Boston and gave it
the title that stuck, Un Ballo in Maschera.
Colonial Boston—known more for Puritans
than bal masque—never rang true with many aficionados,
Gossett says, and since the 1950s every major opera house in the
world has reworked Ballo with a Swedish setting. In 1999 Gossett—awarded
both a 1985 Medaglia d’Oro, prima classe,
for services to Italian culture, education, and the arts, and a
1997 Diploma di Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito,
Italy’s highest civilian honor—and Narici, who edited
Ballo for the new Verdi critical edition, decided to delve deeper.
Drawing on their experience preparing ten critical editions of Verdi
operas and their knowledge of the composer’s methods, they
tried to imagine how Gustavo III might have turned out
if completed without intervention.
Upon examination, Gossett and Narici found that
75 percent of Ballo’s autograph manuscript—an
abridged version that Verdi typically penned before orchestrating
an opera—was Vendetta’s skeleton score. Verdi
had simply scraped away old words and music and written in the new
Bostonian ones. The other 25 percent, however, was lost. To recreate
the missing sections they referred to his first draft, a “short
score” of two or three staves, including the main vocal lines
and orchestral ideas.
Using those documents, to which descendants
of Verdi, who died in 1901, provided them access, the duo created
a hypothetical Gustavo III. The new opera, a major departure
from Ballo—it includes a different baritone aria,
for example—reconstructs the original with a fair degree of
accuracy, according to Gossett: “We think we’re pretty
damn close.” First performed in Gothenburg in 2002, Gustavo
III opened at Naples’s Teatro San Carlo in January and
played New York’s Carnegie Hall in March.
“Hearing the early version is at
the very least instructive, even in the majority of cases where
Verdi’s later changes are likely to be judged improvements,”
music critic George Loomis wrote of the Gothenburg production in
the International Herald Tribune. While other critics have
been less kind, Gossett views his reconstruction through a scholar’s
lens. “None of our work is about ‘better’ or ‘worse’:
it is about knowledge,” he says. “And Ballo
remains the glorious, if dramaturgically flawed, opera we will all
continue to treasure.”—Carrie Golus, AB’91,