- Medium Specificity: Response to Rebecca Schneider
In the second scene of Verdi’s and Somma’s Un ballo in maschera, the action moves from the seat of colonial power—a grand hall in the home of Riccardo, “Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston”—to a shabby “hovel” (abituro) somewhere on the edge of town. Its proprietress is Ulrica, a “fortune teller of black race” (indovina di razza nera), whose occult dealings have recently been denounced at court. During the scene she will entertain three principal visitors: Silvano, a sailor, seeking fore-knowledge of his career; the aristocratic Amelia, who begs for herbs that will calm her adulterous passion for Riccardo and restore her to her Creole husband; and, finally, Riccardo himself, disguised as a fisherman. Ulrica warns Riccardo of his impending death at the hands of his rival and then, after several minutes of extraordinarily dramatic ensemble writing, vanishes from the opera, never to be heard or seen again.
The witch, somewhat improbably, was modeled on a real woman: Ulrica Arfvidsson, a well-connected medium at the court of Gustav III. This minor, if irresistibly theatrical, figure (she did apparently predict the regicide) had appeared as “Averdson, devineresse” in Scribe’s libretto for Auber’s Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué (1833), and was also part of Verdi’s and Somma’s original plan for Gustavo III.1 But the presence of a fortune teller at an Enlightenment court helped turn the Neapolitan censors against that text; they proposed moving the action to “a Celtic region and an epoch that justifies the superstitions, belief in witchcraft and in the summoning up of spirits—ideas that are distant from our Christian beliefs.”2 Arfvidsson did nonetheless manage to survive through Verdi’s and Somma’s many revisions, and it was only in the final version—where, after experiments with Stockholm, Pomerania, Florence, and Göteborg, the action was definitively moved to colonial Boston—that she lost her surname and changed her race, becoming simply “Ulrica, of filthy Negro blood” (Ulrica, dell’immondo / Sangue de’ negri).
This shift has been plausibly explained as part of an attempt to impose local color on an opera whose relationship with setting is, to put it mildly, somewhat fraught.3 From a different perspective, though, Verdi and Somma might be described not as “altering” Ulrica’s race but rather amplifying a metonymic [End Page 176] association with blackness that had always clustered around Arfvidsson. I’m thinking not only of her disturbing link to a world of pre-Christian magic (was this especially worrisome in Naples, a city that has long been imagined as the unstable boundary between “Africa” and “Europe”?) and her favored divining aid (coffee leaves), but also of her African assistant, one Adrecka Dordi, whose participation in Arfvidsson’s rituals surely contributed to their exotic glow. Ralph Hexter has placed Un ballo in maschera at the capstone of a discursive history that progressively erased evidence of the historical Gustav’s homosexuality.4 Ironically, this same process of rewriting seems to have brought sundry colonial skeletons out of the closet.
I found myself thinking about the strange afterlife of Ulrica Arfvidsson while watching Yinka Shonibare’s Un ballo in maschera and, especially, while reading Rebecca Schneider’s extraordinary commentary on his film. Schneider interprets Shonibare’s video loop as an exploration of “the problem of historical omission and recurrence (the persistence of the outmode of empire, if you will)” that attempts to reanimate the imperial energies repressed by Verdi’s and Somma’s (European, high-cultural) entertainment. Eighteenth-century gowns are remade in bright “African” fabrics, the Swedish setting (indeed, Gustav’s actual palace) is restored; what is more, music is silenced in a move that may recall Brecht’s or Catherine Clément’s anxieties about its obfuscatory role in operatic spectacle, to be replaced by the noisily embodied sounds of dance. But what does it mean that an artist devoted to “the problem of historical omission and recurrence” excluded the opera’s one black character from his “gesture” toward the work? If, as Schneider suggests, Shonibare uses a historically loaded logic of zombism to “consume” Un ballo in maschera...