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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera (1859)
Gustavo III ... Placido Domingo (tenor)
Anckarström ... Leo Nucci (baritone)
Amelia ... Josephine Barstow (soprano)
Ulrica ... Florence Quivar (mezzo)
Oscar ... Sumi Jo (soprano)
Cristiano ... Jean-Luc Chaignaud (bass)
Horn ... ... Kurt Rydl (bass)
Ribbing ... Goran Simic (bass)
A Judge ... Wolfganag Witte (tenor)
Amelia’s servant ... ... Adolf Tomaschek (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Directed by John Schlesinger
Recorded 28 July 1990, Großes Festpielhaus, Salzburg.

This version of Verdi’s masterly opera is special in every way. The conducting, the cast, the production, the recording (the video/DVD direction by Brian Large) are all remarkable. As for the occasion, the live performance from the Salzburg Festival, that was as remarkable as the circumstances. For this was to have been a crowning moment in 1989 as part of Karajan’s Verdi odyssey for Salzburg; alas he died that year. However, he did record the opera for CD (Deutsche Grammophon) though he could not progress from stage rehearsals to the production itself. The following season the same cast and production returned, conducted by another great Verdi conductor, Sir Georg Solti.

Verdi composed A Masked Ball for Rome, where it was first performed in 1859. He succeeded in making an involving study of the characters’ fates, but the sensitive subject of regicide led to one of his epic battles with the censors. As a result the Swedish King Gustav III was turned into a count, and the location of the drama was shifted across the world to Boston. The theme is love, between the tragic figure of the king and his friend Anckerström’s wife Amelia.

The libretto of Antonio Somma was particularly admired by Verdi, who responded to it in some of his most deeply felt and ecstatic music. But there are well drawn contrasts too. For example, the king’s conspiratorial enemies are characterized with deliberately ironic wit, while the soprano travesty role of the page Oscar provides a brilliant counterpoint to what is essentially a dark drama. As for the opera’s title, it is true in two ways. The characters do put on masks for the ball in the final scene, but they also have to hide (mask) their true feelings as the drama develops.

The Salzburg production is what we might call ‘traditional’, and none the worse for that. The lighting tends towards extremes, bringing out the extremes of emotion, pretense and intrigue that lie at the heart of the drama. The direction of John Schlesinger, an experienced film producer, is imaginative in making the most of these opportunities. The three leading roles, sung brilliantly by Placido Domingo, Josephine Barstow and Leo Nucci, are not only fine vocally, but wholly convincing dramatically too. If Sumi Jo as Oscar seems more one-dimensional, this is partly because the role has less depth in this regard.

Solti’s conducting is rhythmically incisive, as ever, and there is a beautifully drawn balance in the recorded sound. The Vienna Philharmonic are heard at their glorious best, with secure string tone, some delightfully pointed wind solos, and above all a marvellously unified ensemble. The pacing of the drama can hardly have been better realized at any point in the opera’s history.

For those searching for the subtitles, the initial credits give the false impression that the whole performance will be supported in German only. This turns out not to be so, and the translations are sensitively done. The booklet notes are informative and helpful; more so than is generally the case with issues in this format. In sum, this is as fine an opera DVD as one could wish to acquire.

Terry Barfoot



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