Professor Susan Rutherford on concealment and censorship in the history of Un ballo in maschera.
Masks fall. They don’t dissolve, or dissipate. Masks fall, they drop, they plunge into space, into nothingness – sometimes with urgent swiftness, sometimes with infinitesimal, agonising slowness. What is left behind is often described as ‘naked’ truth or ‘stark’ reality: unadorned, uncompromising, fixed. Things as they are, not as we might wish them to be.
Giuseppe Verdi’s operas were designed around this very principle. The conventions of 19th-century melodrama required a building of tension towards a final scene of revelation, when the protagonists at last see each other in their true light. In Un ballo in maschera (1859), the masked ball of the title is just such a denouement: a ruler is revealed as a penitent libertine, a respectable wife is implicated in adultery, a close friend is an assassin and traitor. But the whole opera is a series of unmaskings, all steps towards this ultimate, irrevocable disclosure.
Impatience with disguise – at least, with social hypocrisy – was also part of Verdi’s nature. Writing to a friend, Cesare De Sanctis, in Naples in 1854, Verdi anticipated a lack of success for La traviata in that city, because ‘your priests and monks would be afraid to see on stage certain things that they do very well in obscurity – and that it would be much better to do in the light of the sun in the public piazza in the manner of Diogenes’. A similar issue would arise again a few years later with Un ballo in maschera. Indeed, if thematically the opera was all about unmasking, its own history described precisely the reverse process. The original source, Eugène Scribe’s Gustave III, ou Le Bal masqué (1833) – based on the real-life assassination of a Swedish king in 1792 – would gradually be obscured under other identities.
Read more in our programme, available at the theatre before all performances of Un ballo in maschera. Tickets are still available for the remaining performances of Un ballo in maschera on 21, 25, 27, 28 and 29 June. Book here.