Un ballo in maschera made the censors nervous. Verdi had been drawn, as had several lesser composers before him, to the real-life story of the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden by a member of his military bodyguard in 1792. A jittery sense of foreboding hung in the air long after the horror of the event had settled over politically troubled Europe.

In Naples, where his new opera had been commissioned, Verdi struggled to satisfy occupying Austrian officials. Libretto was tweaked, locales altered, characters disguised. Suddenly in January 1858, virtually on the eve of opening night, came explosive news from Paris. An attempt had been made on Emperor Napoleon III’s life by an Italian nationalist. Panicked Hapsburg authorities effectively closed down the Teatro San Carlo until the local shockwaves subsided. Verdi threw up his hands and moved his beleaguered production to Rome.

A year later, Un ballo in maschera finally premiered, the product of yet another round of forced rewrites. What had begun as a tragic tale rooted in historical fact had been dramatically reshaped by Verdi’s political overseers into melodrama and transplanted to Boston, a safe, neutral setting far below the European horizon.

Imported from Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, The Canadian Opera Company’s winter 2014 season finale recasts Verdi’s quasi reality opera as a stylish gangster thriller set against the background of a nightmarish American Dream. The spirits of JFK and Jackie and the glossy fantasy of their court haunt this graphic updating of nineteenth century librettist Antonio Somma’s darkly ordained tale.

Rumours of assassination abound in Boston. The governor, Riccardo, is unperturbed by the threats. His sole preoccupation at the moment is the guest list for an upcoming ball. Much to his delight, he spies the name of Amelia, wife of his confidant and senior advisor, Renato. Riccardo has fallen in love with her. Hiding his innermost feelings, Riccardo meets with Renato to discuss the fate of Ulrica, a fortune-teller recently found guilty of witchcraft. What begins as a lark to test the old woman’s powers, quickly turns into a fateful encounter. Ulrica prophesizes that the next man to greet Riccardo is destined to be his assassin. All in attendance laugh when trusted friend Renato enters and grasps the governor’s hand. Surely the prediction is false.

At midnight, Amelia hunts for a magic herb reputed to grow at the foot of Boston’s gallows. She, too, has consulted Ulrica earlier, seeking a remedy to extinguish the love she herself bears for Riccardo. Their fatal attraction can only end badly. Riccardo, who has followed, surprises her. The two pour out their emotions. Suddenly, Renato arrives on the scene. Amelia quickly hides her face. A pair of assassins are approaching, he warns. Riccardo flees for his life but not before Renato promises to escort his friend’s mysterious companion safely back to town, no questions asked. The two conspirators, Samuel and Tom appear in the moonlight. Renato draws a weapon. There is a struggle. Amelia flings herself between them, accidentally dropping her veil in the process. Samuel and Tom are thunderstruck. Renato assumes the worst. She and Riccardo must be lovers.

Later in the privacy of his study, Renato threatens to strangle Amelia for the dishonour she has caused him. Amelia pleads her innocence and begs her madly jealous husband to allow her to spend a last precious moment with their child. Try as he might, Renato cannot bring himself to kill her. It is Riccardo who shall die. Before long, Renato is pledging his young son’s life as proof positive to Samuel and Tom of his resolution to join their plot. Lots are drawn. Renato will wield the murder weapon. Fate decrees the time and place of action when Oscar, a page, arrives with an invitation to the governor’s ball that night. But the bloody deed proves difficult. The guests’ identities are all concealed by masks. Unaware of the consequences, Oscar playfully points out the governor. Amelia tries to persuade Riccardo to escape but he has decided she and Renato will return to England in the morning. He must hold her one last time. Renato advances. A gunshot rings out. Riccardo slumps to the floor. Declaring Amelia innocent of wrongdoing and pardoning the ring of conspirators, he gasps his last breath and dies.

Written in the middle period of his career, Un ballo in maschera reveals Verdi at the top of his game. The relentless twists and turns of the wild, switchbacking plot yield countless opportunities for the composer to exercise his stunning musical inventiveness. Co-directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito‘s visionary 2008 staging takes its cues from the great maestro’s bold experiments in melody and mood. Lighter, comic moments throw ironic light on explosive scenes of violence. The same hitmen who mock Renato with their comic duet  E che baccano sul caso strano (“What gossiping there’ll be about this”) play games with his young son, garrotte and handgun stashed in their pockets.

Setting is every bit as dramatically counterpointed, a distinctly soulless, 1960s-style hotel, all faddish chrome, precast and plastic, where the ruthless and the powerful gather to play dirty politics. A fashionable procession of shady characters parades through the lobby creating an air of high-stakes allure. It is a tense, volatile place where treachery is the norm and dead bodies swing on ropes outside. Decency stands little chance of survival. Vendettas breed in the cracks. Virtually everyone wears a mask, occassionally real, more commonly metaphorical, to hide their true intent. Friends are deceivers. Men of honour turn to murder. A very visible First Lady is a hidden power behind the scenes.

This sharply conceived, powerfully executed COC production throws the vicious world of Verdi’s shadowy classic into gripping close-up as vivid as a breaking newscast. Text, score and staging achieve near perfect sync.

Singing the role of Riccardo, rising tenor star Dimitri Pittas skilfully captures the mix of studied playboy charm and flippancy, boredom and purpose that defines the doomed governor. Last seen as Rodolfo in the COC’s La bohème in 2013, Pittas continues to amaze. His sound, sunny and warm with a light, meticulous vibrato, is as dazzling as it is embracing. To sing a truly noteworthy Riccardo demands a gracefulness and ease of style combined with a solid, ringing top free of overstatement. It is a tricky challenge and Pittas clears the bar by a wide margin.

As Renato, Riccardo’s trusted friend turned assassin, baritone Roland Wood gives a rich performance of memorable depth. Wood possesses a fine, tuneful instrument capable of great expressiveness which he readily employs with both gusto and refinement. Verdi’s celebrated anthem of rage and hurt, Eri tu (“It was you”), a moment of supreme poignancy arguably unsurpassed in the baritone repertoire, is delivered with a splendid degree of commitment by this fine artist.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, appearing in the taxing role of Amelia, gives a performance of breathtaking virtuosity. Amelia dominates Un ballo in maschera, a driving force in every act, a reverberating presence from start to finish. This is a character desperate for happiness caught up in a web of chaos. Pieczonka tears at the heart, her voice an anguished cry, soaring and sustained one moment, plaintive and pianissimo the next. Morrò, ma prima in grazia (“I shall die but first a final wish”), the opera’s most familiar aria and one of Verdi’s best, is hugely deserving of the sustained round of cheers that greet Pieczonka’s gorgeous rendition.

Singing Ulrica, a blind mystic in this taut COC offering, mezzo Elena Manistina invests her eerie vocal performance with a menacing undertone amply reinforced by the seasoned Russian singer actor’s spellbinding theatricality.

Simone Osborne as Oscar is given much broader scope for characterization by the Wieler/Morabito team than Un ballo in maschera’s famous trouser role usually implies. Here the playful page, undisguisedly feminine, is also a discrete party planner. Osborne inhabits the expansive Four Seasons Centre stage for long silent stretches at a time between vocal assignments. Her stillness is captivating, her frisky Saper vorreste (“You want to know”) a delight.

Basses Giovani Battista Parodi and Evan Boyer are Tom and Samuel, a genuinely chilling pair of murderous thugs. Their close harmony duets are spine-tingling.

The Canadian Opera Company chorus raises a wall of wraparound sound matched by the towering COC orchestra under the direction of visiting maestro, Stephen Lord. Conducting is sensitive and assured, rhythms decisive, legato luxurious. Musicianship is masterful.

Exceptional singing and playing are reasons enough to attend this stirring Un ballo in maschera. That the production so brilliantly illuminates Verdi’s profoundly dark text makes the experience doubly rewarding. This is grand opera.