Verdi's Un ballo in maschera
Maria Callas (sop) Amelia Giuseppe di Stefano (ten) Riccardo Ettore Bastianini (bar) Renato Eugenia Ratti (sop) Oscar Giulietta Simionato (contr) Ulrica Antonio Cassinelli (bass) Sam Marco Stefanoni (bass) Tom Giuseppe Morresi (bar) Silvano Angelo Mercuriali (ten) Judge La Scala, Milan Chorus and Orchestra / Gianandrea Gavazzeni
EMI mono 567918-2 or Regis RRC2079 (131' · ADD · T/t). Recorded live 1957. Buy from iTunes
This set comes from live performances at La Scala in the mid-1950s when the diva was at the height of her powers. Callas gives here an even more vital performance than on her studio recorded set. It was her particular genius to find exactly the appropriate mode of expression for every role she tackled. Here we have Callas the tormented, guilty wife. But she also gives us a hundred different individual inflections to reflect the emotion of the moment: indeed, as John Steane points out in one of his illuminating notes, it’s often a small aside that reveals as much about the character she’s portraying as a big set-piece.
The context of an evening in the theatre makes this a more arresting, vivid interpretation on all sides than its studio counterpart of a year earlier, with Gianandrea Gavazzeni galvanising his fine cast to great things. As John Ardoin put it in his study of Callas’s recordings: ‘The La Scala performance is sung with more vivid colours, with accents more etched and a general intensification of Verdi’s drama.’ Here the sound picture is appreciably superior to that on earlier live sets which capture Callas in other roles at La Scala. The irresistible di Stefano is the soul of vital declamation as Riccardo. Ettore Bastianini’s forthright Renato, the only role he sang in London and one of his best in an all too short career, and Giulietta Simionato’s classic Ulrica are also huge assets. Other roles are filled with house singers of the day. An unbeatable set.
Martina Arroyo (sop) Amelia Plácido Domingo (ten) Riccardo Piero Cappuccilli (bar) Renato Reri Grist (sop) Oscar Fiorenza Cossotto (mez) Ulrica Gwynne Howell (bass) Samuel Richard Van Allan (bass) Tom Giorgio Giorgetti (bass) Silvano Kenneth Collins (ten) Judge David Barrett (bar) Servant Haberdashers’ Aske’s School Girls’ Choir; Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; New Philharmonia Orchestra / Riccardo Muti
EMI 566510-2 (127' · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1975. Buy from Amazon
This is the Ballo which, above all else, glories in Muti as an exuberant man of the theatre. The impetus with which he whips up the constituent parts of an ensemble into the vortex, and the juxtaposition of blasting tutti with slim, sweetly phrased woodwind detail, so typical of this opera, hits the ear more thrillingly than ever. So does the equally characteristic tugging undercurrent of the ballo against the intrigue of the maschera, activated by Muti with such acute perception and élan.
He provides pliant, springing support for all his singers too: Domingo, a warm, generous Riccardo, is every bit as happy with Muti as with Abbado. The same can’t be said of Martina Arroyo, the weak link on this recording. Dramatically forceful but curiously cool and detached from the expressive nuancing of her part, she has little of the vulnerability of a Ricciarelli (Abbado), or the individuality of a Price (Solti). But although this mid-price recording may not offer the most consistently luxurious vocal banquet, none the less, with Cossotto’s stentorian Ulrica and Cappuccilli’s staunch, resilient Renato, its strong sense of theatrical presence and its dramatic integrity will make it the chosen version for many collectors.
Josephine Barstow (sop) Amelia Plácido Domingo (ten) Gustav Leo Nucci (bar) Renato Sumi Jo (sop) Oscar Florence Quivar (contr) Ulrica Jean-Luc Chaignaud (bass) Christiano Kurt Rydl (bass) Horn Goran Simic (bar) Ribbing Wolfgang Witte (ten) Judge Adolf Tomaschek (ten) Servant Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti
Stage director John Schlesinger
Video director Brian Large
TDK DVD DV-CLOPUBIM (145’ · 4:3 · PCM stereo · 0 · s) Recorded live 1990. Buy from Amazon
The year 1990 was the last of the ancien régime at the Salzburg Festival before the revolution brought about by Gérard Mortier. In many ways it represented the ne plus ultra of the Karajan-influenced era; indeed, this production, first seen in 1989, should have been conducted by the old maestro had he not died some months before it was due to be staged – not, however, before he had had time to record it for DG.
John Schlesinger’s bold, sumptuous production in William Dudley’s evocative Swedish settings underline the mood of each scene. Gustav’s study is a true trompe-l’oeil, with a model theatre (the monarch’s pet project) in the foreground. Ulrica’s cave, surrounded by rotten-looking tenements and the eerie gallows for the start of Act 2, is nicely counterpointed by a realistic Swedish house for the home of Renato – though we could have done without the slightly embarrassing presence of his little boy. The finale is admittedly well over the top but succeeds in creating the fever pitch of the masked ball. Within this breathtaking scenery, Schlesinger occasionally over-eggs the pudding with too many extras and intrusive dancers, yet he cleverly maintains the principals in the foreground so that they are never overawed by the magnificence of the decor.
Solti, not always one’s favoured conductor where Verdi is concerned, gives a carefully crafted and surely paced account of this inspired score, and he is eminently supportive of his distinguished cast. Domingo, in peak form, gives a commanding portrayal of the doomed monarch, by turns lightly insouciant in the early scenes, suitably impassioned with Amelia, tragic as the ruler dies; everything is executed with technical assurance and fine control of dynamics. On this night, after a squally scene in the soothsayer’s den, Barstow finds her best Verdian form, pouring her heart and soul into Amelia’s predicament in tone and phrasing always apt to the character’s circumstance. The Act 3 prayer, ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’, is particularly fine. Her interpretation is a worthy souvenir of her under-recorded art. Nucci is also at his best. He delivers his whole role in exemplary voice, firm, steady in tone to support his supple phrasing: ‘Eri tu’ is the heart-rending experience it should be.
Florence Quivar also surpasses herself with her sturdy, steady Ulrica and, as the icing on the cake, Sumi Jo is a buoyant, charming, bright-voiced Oscar. With excellent conspirators, the cast is very near ideal.
It is a pity the picture isn’t widescreen and that the sound recording is not always ideally balanced, but these minor drawbacks cannot prevent a strong recommendation.