As conceived, Un Ballo In Maschera was meant to dramatize the assassination of Sweden’s enlightened despot Gustav III at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Daniel Auber’s opulent treatment of the same subject had taken Paris by storm in 1833, but in Italy, onstage regicide was taboo, and the censors refused to give an inch. And so, for Verdi’s purposes, the Nordic monarch was downgraded to Riccardo, Earl of Warwick, the British governor of pre-Revolutionary Boston.
It’s an innocent fantasy that does no harm. The more you read up on Gustav, who almost certainly was gay, the less sense he makes as the apex of the libretto’s heteronormative love triangle of ruler, right-hand man, and right-hand man’s wife. Occasional attempts are made to restore the original plan, but who goes to the opera for a history lesson? Liliana Cavani’s sober mise-en-scène, documented at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 2001, preserves the nominal New England locale in a vintage cinematic style fashionable houses have all but abandoned.