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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera. opera in three acts - Highlights
Riccardo, Richard Leech (ten); Amelia, Michele Cridèr (sop); Renato, Vladimir Chernov (bar); Ulrica, Elena Zaremba (mez); Oscar, Maria Bayo (sop); Silvano, Roberto Scaltriti (bar); Samuel, Peter Rose (bass); Tom, Gwynne Howell (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi
Recorded in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales in February 1995
WARNER APEX 2564 61504-2 [76.02]

By the time of the composition of ‘Ballo’, Verdi was a rich and powerful man. He had purchased an estate at Sant’Agata near his birthplace and found peace and great pleasure in its development. He no longer needed to write two operas each year and only agreed a contract if location, singers and subject appealed to him. In 1857 he wanted to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, when the ‘Teatro San Carlo’ in Naples approached him Verdi did not believe the ‘house’ soprano to be suitable for his vision of Cordelia, and he chose instead the subject of ‘Ballo’ and asked the poet Antonio Somma to prepare a libretto. When the libretto was submitted to the censor in Naples they made seven major objections that involved no fewer than 297 lines of the 884 in the text! Their objections involved the assassination of a king, the location in northern Europe, the inclusion of sorcery and the use of firearms on stage. Poet and composer agreed a transfer of location to Boston, the King to Duke and a stabbing not shooting. Still the censor was not satisfied and Verdi cast around for another theatre. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the ‘Teatro Apollo’ on February 17th 1859 with the King becoming Riccardo, ‘The Earl Of Warwick’ an English colonial governor. His secretary and friend became Renato.

Of those operas composed between Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both 1853) and Aida (1871), Ballo was the only opera of Verdi’s reduced output to maintain a foothold in the repertoire throughout its life. Both Il Trovatore and Aida require spinto, or large, voices. For the soprano part of Amelia in Ballo a large voice is needed with strength in the lower tones to match the predominantly dark hues of the music. The part of Riccardo requires a tenor with lighthearted elegance of phrase but with heft to match the demands of the love duet. Whilst the work has lovely lyrical moments it is one of drama and the plotting and realisation of murder. When I heard Carlo Rizzi conduct the work for Welsh National Opera in the early 1990s he presented a sharply focused and dramatic view. In that production the tenor Richard Margison and the young Lisa Gasteen, who has gone on to sing Brünnhilde, had the requisite weight of voice. On this performance Richard Leech as Riccardo is rather too light and I feel that in accommodating him Rizzi loses out on the drama. Michele Cridèr on the other hand has the weight of voice but neither the legato nor the elegance of phrase that the music cries out for. For Amelia’s act II arrival at the gallows, and the following aria and love duet with Riccardo (trs. 13-16) in what is some of Verdi’s most stirring and melodic writing, the effect is disappointing rather than exhilaratingly beautiful on the ear. As Renato the Russian Vladimir Chernov is full-toned and expressive in his two arias (trs. 3 and 20). His is a considerable Verdi baritone whose strengths are marred somewhat by glottal vocal production. This failing is even greater in Elena Zaremba’s Ulrica, which has not the compensation of her compatriot’s legato (tr. 5). Maria Bayo sings an appropriately light-toned Oscar and her brief Saper voreste (tr. 23) is a delight. The two conspirators are well sung and portrayed by Peter Rose and Gwynne Howell (tr. 17). The recording is clear and well-balanced.

Given the competition on CD I can well understand why the complete performance from which these highlights are taken did not last the pace in the catalogue. However, highlights are somewhat more difficult to come by. To get a copy of Solti’s first recording featuring the immaculate Bergonzi as Riccardo and Nilsson, another Amelia who also sang Brünnhilde, I had to obtain a copy from Germany! As an introduction to Ballo this generous tracked 76 minutes might be adequate. The booklet synopsis is brief and regrettably not track-related. This omission is partly compensated for by brief character descriptions.

Robert J Farr

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