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‘Masked ball’: Murder in a royal court

At the height of Giuseppe Verdi’s musical career, he had to endure restrictions on his compositions. The operatic hints of political support for a republican government in his librettos troubled the foreign monarchy ruling Italy. “A Masked Ball,” the third production in San Diego Opera’s 49th season, was one of his severest battles with censors.

Originally commissioned for Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the libretto was based on a historic event in 18th-century Sweden that had already been depicted on the stage. However, censors objected to a monarch being assassinated in public as a drama. After several revisions, Verdi was dissatisfied with the Napoli response to the project. The conflict was further provoked by the recent attempted assassination of Napoleon III in Paris.

Not to be thwarted, Verdi moved the premiere in 1859 to Rome and completely changed the characters and setting to colonial-era Boston. Apparently the censors had no objection to the English governor of Massachusetts being killed in a conspiracy.

The SDO production will replicate Verdi’s original concept, taking the action back to 1792 Sweden, when King Gustav III is threatened by a rebellion against his regime. The fictional liaison with Amelia, wife of the king’s secretary, is added to the plot for a romantic link to the assassination. This production will show the opulent royal court with powdered wigs, elegant costumes and vibrant sets from San Francisco Opera.

It is not unusual for the opera composer of a historic tale to create a fictional character to balance out the cast of voices and spice the plot. Amelia was re-created in a romantic liaison without any evidence that she was Gustav’s lover.

The opera has maintained its popularity in the standard repertory as one of Verdi’s great compositions created near the end of his productive career. Yet to come were “Aida,” “Don Carlo” and “Otello.”

Heading the superstar cast are four artists seen frequently at the Metropolitan Opera and on the international opera stages. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, singing Gustav, performed here in 2010 and was featured in Met Opera High Definition broadcasts of 2013 and 2014. He is making a character switch here as the King of Sweden, after performing the American version in Europe.

Other cast stars, sopranos Krassimira Stoyanova as Amelia and Kathleen Kim in the pants role of Oscar the page, are making their SDO debuts. A pivotal character is the fortuneteller, Madame Arvidson, (called Ulrica, an astrologer in the American version).

Stephanie Blythe in her SDO debut appears in the role of Madam Arvidson. This is one of her signature roles that include the gypsy Azucena and Egyptian Princess Amneris in other Verdi classics and Fricka in Wagner’s Ring Cycle performed at the Met and international opera houses.

The real-life astrologer who predicted Gustav’s death was Ulrica Arfvidsson, the daughter of the caretaker at the king’s palace and married to one of the courtiers. As part of the royal society, she used rumors and gossip to promote her fortune-telling talent sought out by many aristocrats in Gustav’s court.

The premiere of “A Masked Ball” set in America was generally performed until the mid-20th century with the role of Ulrica portrayed as an African-American medium who used tea leaves and tarot cards to predict fortunes.

It became an entry-level role to the opera stage for African-Americans. The great contralto Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 as Ulrica and opened the door for others to follow as opera heroines of color: Carmen, Aida and Salome.

“A Masked Ball” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 8; Tuesday, March 11 and Friday, March 14; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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