This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera begins its new broadcast season with Verdi's Un ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball).
If some movies are real "movie movies," delivering a direct dose of the familiar movie pleasures, then perhaps Un Ballo in Maschera can be called a true "opera opera."
It's got a love triangle. A sorceress with a baleful prediction. A courageous ruler, and conspirators plotting his downfall. And of course, a glamorous masked ball.
Yet nobody has ever been inclined to use Ballo as a stick with which to thwack the clichés of grand opera — the fate that's been suffered by Wagner's Ring cycle, or Verdi's own Il Trovatore.
Maybe that's because, when it comes to irony, the opera already has a hefty dose, placed there by the composer himself. Repeatedly, in this opera, moments of drama are undercut by moments of humor, or the brilliance that we associate with comedy. Likewise, moments that are light-hearted can easily veer quickly into something more serious. The scene of the masked ball, for all its tunefulness, has a restless undertone, composed right into the music by Verdi.
The story of the opera has a historical basis — but it's pretty slender. It hearkens back to the assassination of the king of Sweden, at a masked ball, in 1792. But by the time that event had been turned into a French opera (for an earlier composer), and then into an Italian libretto for Verdi, and then reworked to please government censors, historical accuracy had largely evaporated.
Even the original Swedish setting had been eliminated, to be replaced by colonial Massachusetts — something opera buffs have been eager (maybe too eager?) to discuss ever since.
What we have, instead of a historical account, is a chain of vivid theatrical scenes — just the kind of material that Verdi loved to sink his teeth into. There's a brave ruler whose very bravery propels him into risky situations. He's secretly in love with a woman who is also the wife of his closest friend and advisor. Eventually the secret gets out, and the conflict culminates at the masked ball that gives the opera its title.
(The masked ball, by the way, is not the only time in the opera in which people wear disguises. In each act, we see the leading characters putting on costumes or concealing their identities. It's a trusty device for giving some unity to a script. If you're writing the screenplay for your own movie movie, you might want to give it a try.)