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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb. 2004


Verdi & San Carlo

In January, 2004, the San Carlo Theater put to right a bit of Bourbon censorship 145 years after the fact. Opera-goers, used to seeing Un Ballo in Maschera by Giuseppe Verdi, will be able to see the original version with the original name, Gustavo III, una vendetta in domino. I have heard that the original has been done elsewhere, but no one I have spoken to—none of my opera-addicted friends and relatives—has ever seen that version.

The first 20 years of Verdi's very long career as a composer were between 1840-60, a period that corresponded to a period of great social turmoil in the Kingdom of Naples. It is, thus, not surprising that Verdi—one of the great voices for Italian unity—would not get along very well with the absolutist Bourbon kings of Naples.

At least a few of Verdi's early operas were presented at San Carlo almost as soon as they were composed: Oberto, conte di S. Bonifacio and a comic opera entitled Il finto Stanislao. Then, Alzira, a piece set in Peru, actually premiered in Naples in 1845. All of these were uncontroversial as to political content and sailed by the censors in Naples with no problem. All of those works have remained obscure to this day. (Alzira did give Verdi, however, the chance to work with the greatest Neapolitan librettist of the day, Salvatore Cammarano, author of the libretti for a number of Donizetti's operas. Verdi and Cammarano collaborated on three other works: The Battle of Legnano, Luisa Miller, and Il Trovatore.)

Luisa Miller premiered in Naples in 1849. To fulfill his contract with San Carlo, Verdi had been planning an opera called Maria de' Ricci, based on a medieval siege of Florence, very much in keeping with his timely preoccupation with freedom and revolution. The censors didn't want any part of any siege of any Florence, so Verdi and Cammarano came up with Luisa Miller, based on Schiller’s play, Kabale und Liebe.

It is strange to me that the censors let Nabucco pass at all, even after almost a decade. It was composed in 1840 and played in San Carlo in 1848, the year of great revolutions throughout Europe. The theme of liberty—indeed, even the unofficial national anthem of early Italian unity, Va pensiero sull'ali dorate—got by the censors. Maybe the far away and long ago setting seemed as innocuous to them as Peru had seemed in Alzira.


By 1857, however, Naples was only two years away from being invaded by Garibaldi and taken up into united Italy. The Bourbons  were very defensive about their monarchy. If the censors had not liked potential revolution lurking in any of Verdi's earlier works, imagine their reaction when Giuseppe showed up with an opera about the assassination of Swedish monarch, Gustav III, in 1792, murdered by aristocratic conspirators afraid of their enlightened king's potential open-mindedness to the ideals of the French Revolution. An opera about regicide (!) in a kingdom that had experienced three revolutions in the previous 40 years? We don't think so.

Even after the opera about Gustavo III had been watered down to Un Ballo in Maschera and the European king had been turned into a 17th-century governor of Boston (!), the censors still didn't like it; it had to premiere in Rome in 1859. Shortly thereafter, what Neapolitan censors thought or didn't think became moot—along with the rest of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples. Verdi did have a bit of on-the-spot revenge at the fall of the kingdom of Naples. His Battle of Legnano was actually running in January of 1861 at San Carlo while Bourbon forces were on their last legs in Gaeta just up the coast. (The opera program for 1860/61 had nothing to do with the Bourbons, however. Garibaldi had taken Naples in September, 1860. He liked Verdi, and an opera about a battle?—while the real deal was going on just a few miles away? That's too good to be true!)

The traditional, non-Swedish Un Ballo in Maschera played in 1862, but 2004 will be the first time that the original Gustavo III has played in Naples. I have a feeling that any number of opera-goers are going to walk by San Carlo, look up at the posters and say: "Hmmmm, Gustavo III. Verdi. Gee, I never heard of that  one." * Who knows. Maybe this is a good sign. Riccardo, the tenor, Count of Warwick and Governor of Boston can take a break after all these years

*note: San Carlo is taking no chances. The posters tell you in fine print that Gustavo III  is the original version of Un ballo in maschera, and that the opera was originally meant to be premiered in Naples.

[Also see a related item: Dialect Theater, Opera Parodies and the San Carlino [sic] Theater.]

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