Gustav III, King of Sweden (r. 1771-1792), was an enlightened despot and lover of the arts, murdered in 1792 by a conspiracy of nobles.
In many ways, Gustav was an attractive figure. He was an enthusiast for Enlightenment ideals, particularly French writers like Voltaire. He promoted free trade; encouraged religious tolerance, and, to a limited extent, press freedom; improved health care; restricted the death penalty; and abolished torture to extract confessions.
He was the first head of state to recognise the States, when the Americans were fighting their War of Independence.
He also founded the Swedish Academy, built the Royal Swedish Opera and Ballet, and wrote historical dramas and opera libretti.
The nobles, though, had good reason to hate the king. He had curtailed their power, ended traditional privileges, allowed ordinary citizens to enter government, and waged an unpopular and unsuccessful war with Russia.
And so, on the night of 16 March 1792, Captain Jacob Johan Anckarström, a military officer, shot Gustav at a masked ball at the Royal Opera House on 16 March 1792.
The king survived, but the wound became infected. Gustav died of scepticaemia a fortnight later.
According to operatic lore, though, Gustav’s murder was personal.
Anckarström was Gustav’s best friend, and Gustav was in love with Anckarström’s wife Amelia.
That’s why Anckarström shot him.
We are, of course, talking about…
GUSTAVE III, OU LE BAL MASQUÉ
Opéra historique in 5 acts
Composer: Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
Libretto: Eugène Scribe
First performed: Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle Le Peletier), 27 February 1833, conducted by F.A. Habeneck
(Right! Hands up! Who thought we were going to talk about Verdi’s Ballo in maschera?)
Auber (1782-1871) is little known today, but was once one of the most popular composers in Europe. Tom Kaufman, for one, considered him one of the three giants of French opera in the mid-19th century, alongside Meyerbeer and Halévy.
While I wouldn’t put Auber quite in the top rank, his operas are delightful entertainment. The music is “light”, but it’s always clear, tuneful, charming, and never less than pleasing.
Perhaps that’s why Rossini called the diminutive composer Piccolo musico, ma grande musicista (“a small musician, but a great maker of music”).
Wagner, no less, was a big fan.
His music – at once elegant and popular, effortless and precise, graceful and robust, and letting its whimsy take it where it would – had all the necessary qualities to capture and dominate the public’s taste. He seized song with a witty vivacity, multiplied rhythms to infinity, and gave ensembles a characteristic zest and freshness almost unknown before him.
And the young Richard raved about La muette de Portici (1828), a historical epic about the Neapolitan fisherman Masaniello’s revolt against Habsburg Spain in 1647:
It is a national work of the sort that each nation has only one of at the most… This tempestuous energy, this ocean of emotions and passion, depicted most vividly and shot through with the most individual melodies, compounded of grace and power, charm and heroism – is not all this the true incarnation of the French nation’s recent history? Could this astonishing work of art have been created by any composer other than a Frenchman? – It cannot be put any other way – with this work the modern French school reached its highest point, winning with it mastery over the whole civilised world.
(Yes, even when talking about opera, Wagner thinks in terms of total world domination.)
Such a vivid operatic subject was a complete novelty – the first real drama in five acts with all the attributes of a genuine tragedy, down to the actual tragic ending… Each of these five acts presented a drastic picture of the greatest vivacity, in which arias and duets in the conventional operatic sense were scarcely to be detected any more, or at least – with the exception of the prima donna’s aria in the first act – no longer had this effect. Now it was the entire act, as a larger ensemble, that gripped one and carried one away.
That opera was revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspired Wagner’s music dramas – and was the spark for the creation of Belgium.
Auber’s opéras comiques – many written in collaboration with top librettist Eugène Scribe (after whom, of course, this blog is named) – influenced Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach, and Viennese opera.
- Fra Diavolo (1830), about a romantic Italian bandit
- Le cheval de bronze (1835), a fantastical tale set in ancient China and on the planet Venus (before scientists discovered the planet is 462 °C, and has an atmosphere of poisonous carbon dioxide gas and sulphuric acid)
- Le domino noir (1837), in which a young Spaniard falls in love with a nun
Only nine of his nearly 50 operas have been performed in recent decades. Les diamants de la couronne (1841), Haydée (1847), and Manon Lescaut (1856) have also been produced at Compiègne. La sirène (1844) was performed in early 2018, but is not yet available on CD. After the warmly received Domino noir in Paris this year, hopefully more will follow.
And the overtures are exhilarating:
The best book in English on the composer is Robert Letellier’s Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: The Man and His Music (2010).
Listen to the complete opera:
Libretto (in French) here
- GUSTAVE III, King of Sweden (tenor)
- ANKASTROM, his friend (bass)
- AMÉLIE, Countess of Ankaström, in love with Gustave (soprano)
- OSCAR, the King’s page (soprano)
- ARVEDSON, fortune-teller (mezzo-soprano)
- DEHORN, conspirator (bass)
- RIBBING, conspirator (tenor)
- A CHAMBERLAIN (tenor)
- ARMFELT, Minister of Justice (bass)
- GÉNÉRAL KAULBART, Minister of War (bass)
- CHRISTIAN. a sailor (tenor)
- A Servant of Ankaström
- ROSLIN, painter (silent)
- SERGELL, sculptor (silent)
Stockholm, 15 and 16 March 1792
The King’s palace in Stockholm – A vast, rich waiting room
While Gustave III rehearses his opera Gustaf Wasa, conspirators led by Count Adolph Ribbing and Claes Fredrik Dehorn plot to murder him. The king has worries of his own; he loves Amélie, married to Ankaström – an offence to honour and friendship.
Gustave organises war with the Russians, and a masked ball which the most beautiful women in court (including Amélie Ankaström) will attend.
Ankaström tells Gustave that he knows why he is unhappy – but the king is relieved when it’s only a warning of a conspiracy, not love for his friend’s wife.
Gustave learns that the fortuneteller Mme Arvedson is under threat of exile – and decides to investigate for himself, in disguise.
The fortune-teller’s house
Gustave, disguised as a sailor, arrives first at Mme Arvedson’s. He’s amused to watch the fortuneteller wow the crowd by conjuring up Beelzebub.
Amélie arrives; she confesses she loves an important person at court, and struggles not to love him. Mme Arvedson tells her to go at midnight, and pluck a herb from the executioner’s field. Gustave will secretly follow her there.
The courtiers arrive. The king, still incognito, asks Mme Arvedson to tell the sailor’s fortune.
It’s not a happy fortune: he will die, murdered by the person who first shakes his hand – Ankaström, arriving late. When the king reveals himself, all make fun of Mme Arvedson, who warns them that the dark powers will not be lightly mocked. The conspirators plan to kill the king, but are prevented by the arrival of the people.
The executioner’s field on the outskirts of Stockholm
Midnight. Amélie arrives, frightened but determined, to get the magic herb. The vision of the king rises up before her, though.
So does the real king. He declares his love. She begs for mercy, but is tempted by her feelings. She struggles to regain her senses…
and hears at that moment someone approaching: her husband Ankaström! He has come to warn the king that the conspirators have followed Gustave here, and plan to murder him. Gustave entrusts the veiled woman to Ankaström’s care; he will guide her to the outskirts of Stockholm, without speaking to her. The king escapes.
The murderers arrive, and confront Ankaström. Seeing armed men threaten her husband, Amélie forgets everything. She cries out to them to spare his life, and throws herself between them. The veil falls from her face – and everyone recognises her. Ankaström, thinking he understands all, arranges to meet Ribbing and De Horn the next morning – and plot Gustave’s assassination.
(Someone’s also done the Act III finale with emoticons, which is cute!)
Ankaström threatens to kill Amélie to punish her adultery. She pleads her innocence, and Ankaström spares her life; he will kill Gustave instead. De Horn and Ribbing arrive, and Ankaström joins their conspiracy. He is chosen by lot to kill the king. Oscar comes to invite the Ankaströms to a masked ball at the Opera that evening – for the conspirators, a perfect opportunity for murder.
First tableau: A gallery in the palace, connected to the Opera
Alone, Gustave resolves to send Amélie away. He will name Ankaström governor of Finland, and the couple will leave the next day.
Second tableau: The ballroom of the Opera
The ball scene was one of the highlights of the Paris production, with 300 people onstage, 100 taking part in the galop alone.
Jules Janin described the scene thus:
I believe that never, even at the Opéra, was seen a spectacle more grand, more rich, more curious, more magnificent, that the fifth act of Gustave. It is a fairlyland of beautiful women, of gauze, of velvet, of grotesqueness, of elegance, of good taste and of bad taste, of details, of learned researches, of esprit, of madness and of whimsicality — of every thing in a word, which is suggestive of the eighteenth century. When the beautiful curtain is raised, you find yourself in an immense ballroom.
The stage of the Grand Opéra, the largest in Paris, is admirably adapted for masked balls, and the side-scenes being removed, the stage was surrounded a salon, the decorations of which corresponded with those of the boxes.
This salle de bal is overlooked by boxes, these boxes are filled with masks, who play the part of spectators. At their feet, constantly moving, is the circling crowd, disguised in every imaginable costume, and dominoes of every conceivable hue. Harlequins of all fashions, clowns, peddlers, what shall I say? One presents the appearance of a tub, another of a guitar; his neighbor is disguised en botte d’asperges; that one is a mirror, this a fish; there is a bird, here is a time-piece — you can hardly imagine the infinite confusion. Peasants, marquises, princes, monks, I know not what, mingle in one rainbow-hued crowd. It is impossible to describe this endless madness, this whirl, this bizarrerie, on which the rays of two thousand wax tapers, in their crustal lustres, pour an inundation of mellow light. I, who am so well accustomed to spectacles like this — I, who am, unfortunately, not easily disposed to be surprised — I am yet dazzled with this radiant scene.
At the height of the festivities, tragedy strikes. Amélie warns Gustave that his life is in danger – and Ankaström shoots him. The dying king pardons them all.
Gustave III has one of Scribe’s cleverest, tightest plots, full of surprises and reversals, and one of Auber’s richest scores.
Gustave was Auber’s second grand opera, five years after the sensational success of La muette de Portici (1828).
The first opera codified the genre: a serious, spectacular historical work in five acts, often making a (liberal) social or political point.
Gustave is an advance on La muette, Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831),or Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829). It’s a more intimate, naturalistic drama, where the protagonists’ private lives matter more than politics. The gifted, capricious Gustave; Amélie, torn between love and duty; and the jealous, betrayed Ankarström feel like individuals in a way that, say, the princesses Elvire, Mathilde, and Isabelle, or the tenor roles Arnold and Alphonse don’t.
Scribe’s next major libretti, La juive (1835, for Halévy) and Les Huguenots (1836, for Meyerbeer), would boast more complex, conflicted characters, while later grand operas (e.g. Guido et Ginevra, 1838, for Halévy; La favorite, for Donizetti, 1840; or La reine de Chypre, for Halévy, 1841 – the latter two are not by Scribe) are intimate affairs, ancestors of Gounod’s drame lyrique.
The opera is a tragedy set to the tune of a dance. The theme of the brilliant Act V galop whirls through the five acts, a leitmotiv that symbolises the gaiety, hedonism, and irresponsibility of the king, and the masked ball where he will die.
Gustave has three excellent arias: two show his feelings for Amélie (Acts I and V), while the couplets “Vieille sybille” is a great tune, a definite earworm! Amélie’s Act III aria calls for stratospheric high notes (high E). The couple’s Act III love duet has a beautiful phrase “O tourment…” in the andantino.
The finales and ensembles are ingenious. The Act II finale is great fun; and the Act III finale has a chorus of mocking laughter (an effect used by Verdi). There are two excellent trios (II and III), while the quintet (IV) is one of Auber’s masterstrokes. Five different emotions treated simultaneously with great skill and elegance: three men conspire to murder the King, Amélie worries about her husband and her lover, and the page Oscar looks forward to the pleasures of the ball.
The dance music is exhilarating – and members of the public took to the stage to join in the festivities. The preludes to Act II and III (with its tolling bell) show an unexpected ability to create a menacing, almost Beethovenian, atmosphere.
Performed 168 times in Paris, with lavish stage sets and costumes, Gustave III was well received, but seldom produced after 1840.  Act V, with its famous ballet, was, like Act II of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, often staged on its own. The work fared better internationally, and was a regular part of the repertoire in German-speaking countries, staged as late as the 1870s.
 Auber, always modest, thought the blame lay with him. He wrote the score between December 1832 and February 1833, while the opera was being rehearsed.
The Italians admired it, and ransacked it for their own operas. “Magnificent, spectacular, historical!” enthused Bellini, who saw it in Paris. “The situations are fine, really fine and new.” Had he lived, it would have been his next project after I puritani.
One Vincenzo Gabussi wrote Clemenza di Valois (1841); both he and his opera are completely forgotten.
Later, an Italian operatic genius would use Gustave III as the basis for his work.
Since, however, Mercadante‘s Reggente costs hundreds of dollars on CD, and there’s no English or French translation, we’ll have to make do with this…
…and talk about Verdi.
For modern audiences, the elephant in the room is Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, whose libretto is essentially a translation of Scribe’s into Italian.
Ballo is probably Verdi’s most brilliant opera, dancing nimbly between tragedy and comedy, with a giddily inventive score.
Opera, in this case, works on Darwinian lines; there seems to have been only room for one treatment of the story of Gustav III, and, in an instance of natural selection, Un ballo in maschera has made Auber’s opera extinct.
Critics don’t help. While Vincent Giroud (French Opera: A Short History, 2010) considers the work “one of Scribe and Auber’s finest achievements”, and Herbert Schneider (in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, 2003) writes largely positively about the work, others are less kind.
Ardent Verdians like Julian Budden and Charles Osborne, writing when Italian opera was still considered slightly unrespectable, run down Auber’s opera (and French opera, as a whole) to elevate Ballo. 
Osborne (The Complete Operas of Verdi, 1969) calls Gustave “a neat, well-constructed melodrama which bore absolutely no relation to the life and times of Gustavus III”. The king becomes a “cardboard cut-out”. He says little about Auber’s music.
Budden (The Operas of Verdi, Vol. 2, rev. 1992) dismisses Gustave as “a rather uninteresting museum piece, though one from which Verdi did not scorn to learn”. The libretto – “a cleverly constructed plot in which irony follows irony” – is “ideal work for a theatre that put more value on sensation than on truthful portrayal of character” – but Auber’s “music is mostly trivial, even-paced and dull, with just a progression here or a melodic turn there to remind us that Auber’s is a genuine personality”.
No, Gustave isn’t Ballo, but it’s still a wonderful opera in its own right.
 Budden, for instance, writes: “The musical pillars of the new establishment were Auber, Meyerbeer, and Halévy, at whose hands grand opera achieved a complexity and scale undreamed of before. Schumann and Mendelssohn might sneer; yet, so long as one does not mistake Meyerbeer and his colleagues for great composers (and many Frenchmen at the time did so mistake them), there is no harm in admitting that Parisian grand opera was a stimulating influence all over Europe, and that it played an important part in the genesis of Wagnerian music-drama…”
Osborne, likewise, calls Les Huguenots “a piece of cardboard theatre and gargantuan proportions”, musically negligible apart from a phrase in the fourth act; suggests that Scribe turned out scripts and libretti in his sleep; and implies that Meyerbeer churned out “prolix … and emptily professional” opera after opera.
Laurence Dale (Gustave), Rima Tawil (Amélie), Christian Tréguier (Ankaström), Brigitte Lafon (Oscar), Valérie Marestin (Arvedson), Gilles Dubernet (Dehorn), and Roger Pujol (Ribbing), with the Ensemble Vocal Intermezzo and : Orchestre Lyrique Français, conducted by Michel Swierczewski. Compiègne, 1989.