Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball)” is one of the composer’s most popular operas, filled with great arias and ensembles. It’s got a dramatic story, built around a tragic love triangle and political intrigue.
Thanks to 19th century Italian politics and censorship, it also presents the producer with a choice of locales: Boston or Sweden, or perhaps somewhere else. In Union Avenue Opera’s first of two productions this summer, artistic director Scott Schoonover is going for something a little different.
“Ballo” is based on the true story of the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. French playwright Eugène Scribe jazzed it up with a fictitious romance and a fortune-telling gypsy.
It was natural operatic fodder and, in 1857, Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, were commissioned to write “Gustavo III.” The censors, however, refused to allow even the portrayal of a king onstage, let alone the murder of one.
Eventually, the story was shifted, somewhat improbably, to Puritan Boston in the late 17th century. Gustavo became Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick; two aristocratic conspirators were changed to Tom and Samuel. The censors finally gave their approval.
Well into the 20th century, someone realized that the censors had lost their clout and restored the original names and Swedish setting. These days, it’s pretty much producer’s choice.
Boston is Schoonover’s choice, for reasons that include the lack of a standard score using the Swedish version.
"You have to change a lot of wording and words," he says. "You have to change the names. It’s just more complicated than it’s worth.”
Don’t expect colonial Boston, however.
“We’re doing a pretty traditional telling, but it’s a little different," Schoonover says. "We’re trying to go for some timelessness in terms of the story.”
The concept, he says, is steampunk, with a Boston “a bit in decay, a bit warehouse-looking.” Schoonover calls the style “retro baroque. It’s dark, and a little sexy. It’s not set in any specific time; it looks futuristic, actually. The story will work no matter where it’s set.”
The artists include soprano Courtney Mills, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s young-artist program, as Amelia, torn between love and honor; baritone Andrew Cummings as her husband, Renato; tenor Emanuel-Cristian Caraman as Riccardo; soprano Rachael Holzhausen as the page, Oscar; and mezzo-soprano Denise Knowlton. Mark James Meier directs; Schoonover will conduct.
Schoonover says the company also is working on composer Jonathan (“Flight”) Dove’s reduced version of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” opening Aug. 17.
Only two operas will be presented this summer. UAO gave Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” in late April; in 2013, Schoonover may try a fall production instead.
“The last six or seven years, the middle opera of (the company’s traditional three) isn’t attended nearly to the extent of the first and third, and we lose money," he says. "We tried putting a comedy then. We tried ‘Merry Widow’ and ‘Otello’ — all sorts of things that we thought would attract a crowd.”
Schoonover finally concluded that too many people are on vacation in late July.
“We’re still committed to doing three shows, though, and to getting people in,” he says.
Verdi’s 'Un ballo in maschera'
Who • Union Avenue Opera
When • 8 p.m. June 29, 30, July 6 and 7
Where • Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Boulevard
How much • $32 to $52
More info • unionavenueopera.org or 314-361-2881