With its myriad disguises, superheated passions, political intrigue and ultimate tragedy, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera was once described as “the most operatic of operas” by none other than Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Above all, it exists as “a pure, exclusive poem of love.”
Like many of Verdi’s best works, it reveals its riches at every turn. Un ballo in maschera “has a pulse like a cannon ... the plot surges along” — without ballets or longueurs, wrote Sir Denis Forman in his cheeky reference book A Night at the Opera. “There is not a single dud number. ... It delights and amazes us with the power and ingenuity of its score.”
Following is a plot synopsis, by annotator Paul Thomason, along with audio and video samples of the opera’s many standout moments.
The action takes place in Boston around the year 1700.
Scene 1: A hall in the governor’s mansion
Riccardo, the earl of Warwick and governor of Boston, greets people seeking an audience. He's unaware that among them are the conspirators Samuel and Tom, who are plotting to kill him. Riccardo’s page, Oscar, hands him the guest list for a masked ball that the governor is giving. On the list is Amelia, with whom he is secretly in love, even though she is the wife of Renato, his best friend. Renato enters and tries to warn Riccardo of a conspiracy against him, but the governor refuses to believe the threat. The chief justice asks Riccardo to banish the fortune teller Ulrica. Instead, Riccardo invites everyone to join him in visiting her.
Audio: The chorus “Posa in pace,” recorded by the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti.
Scene 2: Ulrica’s dwelling
The sailor Silvano asks Ulrica to predict his future. When she says he will get money and a promotion, Riccardo (disguised as a fisherman) slips a message about a promotion and some money into Silvano’s pocket. The crowd is dismissed so that a lady may consult Ulrica privately, but Riccardo hides and hears Amelia ask how she can overcome her love for him. Ulrica tells her that she must gather a magic herb at midnight from beneath the gallows outside the city. After Amelia leaves, everyone returns, and Riccardo asks for a reading. Ulrica says he is a great man — then refuses to say any more. Riccardo insists, and Ulrica declares that the next man who shakes his hand will take his life. Riccardo laughs it off, and when Renato arrives and shakes his hand, everyone agrees the prophecy has to be false.
Audio: “Re dell'abisso, affrettati,” Marian Anderson as Ulrica, with Dimitri Mitropoulos leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in 1955 (this remastered version was released in 2011).
Audio: “Di’ tu se fedele,” Richard Tucker as Riccardo, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fausto Cleva, recorded in 1949.
Midnight, at a gallows outside Boston
Amelia is gathering the magic herbs when Riccardo appears and declares his love for her. She resists, but finally admits she loves him, too. Their tryst is suddenly interrupted by Renato, who warns Riccardo that conspirators are approaching to kill him. Amelia has hidden her face with a veil, and Riccardo orders Renato to escort the mysterious woman back to the city without trying to identify her. When the conspirators arrive, led by Samuel and Tom, they are furious to discover Renato, not the governor. They demand to know who his companion is. Renato draws his sword to protect her, but Amelia drops her veil to avoid any bloodshed. The conspirators think it a huge joke that Renato would meet his own wife in such a place, but Renato is livid at what he thinks is a betrayal by his best friend, and he invites Samuel and Tom to his house.
Audio: The Act 2 duet ”Teco io sto ... oh, qual soave brivido” with Placido Domingo as Riccardo and Martina Arroyo as Amelia, Riccardo Muti leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1975. Many regard this duet as Verdi’s best: “Certainly no love duet in all Verdi equals that of Riccardo and Amelia in the second act of Ballo,” wrote annotator William Weaver. “Verdi's music is here at its most physical; the listener's blood races like the lovers.’ ”
The Penguin Guide to Opera hails this recording — and Muti: “The principals are unusually strong but it is the conductor who takes first honors in a warmly dramatic reading. His rhythmic resilience and consideration for the singers go with keen concentration, holding each act together seamlessly.”
Scene 1: A study in Renato’s house
Renato refuses to believe Amelia is innocent, and he tells her that she must die. Tom and Samuel enter, and Renato tells them that he knows all about the plot to kill the governor and that he wishes to join them. They decide to draw lots to determine who will do the deed. When Amelia announces that Oscar has arrived with an invitation from Riccardo, she is ordered to draw the name — it is Renato’s. Oscar invites everyone to a grand masked ball at the governor’s mansion, and while the conspirators decide on their costumes, Amelia desperately seeks a way to warn Riccardo.
Video: “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” soprano Violetta Urmana as Amelia.
Video: “Eri tu,” Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato at the Metropolitan Opera, in November 2012. In spring 2015, he returned to the role, in one of his last Met appearances before his untimely death in 2017.
Scene 2: Renato’s study
Riccardo decides the only honorable thing to do is to send Renato and Amelia back to England. Oscar brings him an anonymous letter warning that an attempt will be made on his life at the ball, but Riccardo ignores it so that he can see Amelia one last time.
Scene 3: A ballroom
Renato asks Oscar what costume Riccardo is wearing. At first, the page refuses to tell him, but then reveals the costume is a black cape with a red ribbon on the breast. When Amelia begs Riccardo to leave the ball, he tells her that he is sending her and her husband away. As they bid each other farewell, Renato steps between them and stabs the governor. The wounded Riccardo insists that Amelia is innocent and gives his friend the signed orders sending them back to England. Riccardo pardons all the conspirators, then dies.
Audio: Act 3 finale, “Ella è pura,” Francesco Meli as Riccardo, Kristin Lewis as Amelia and Vladimir Stoyanov as Renato, with the Parma Teatro Regio Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Gianluigi Gelmetti, recorded live in 2011 and released in 2014.
Synopsis by Paul Thomason, who writes for many symphony orchestras, opera companies and cultural institutions in the United States and Europe.