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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera - opera in three acts (1859)
Riccardo - Carlo Bergonzi (ten); Amelia - Birgit Nilsson (sop); Renato - Cornell Macneil (bar); Ulrica - Giulietta Simionato (mezzo); Oscar - Sylvia Stahlmann (sop); Silvano - Tom Krause (bar); Samuel - Fernando Corena (bass); Tom - Libero Arbace (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Academia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Georg Solti
rec. Santa Cecilia, Rome, July 1960, July 1961. ADD
DECCA CLASSIC OPERA 475 8278 DM2 [67.53 + 59.58]


Verdi had signed with the San Carlo in Naples for an un-named opera for the 1857-1858 Carnival Season. He failed to meet his June 1857 contract date to provide a synopsis of the chosen plot. Somma had completed a libretto of ‘King Lear’ and if the right cast could be assembled this was the intended subject. Verdi rebuffed the San Carlo blandishment. Whereas he might find a better Cordelia their contracted baritone, tenor and bass were of the highest class for a ‘King Lear’. By the September the theatre management were getting restive and turned down suggestions from Verdi personally to supervise and direct a revival of Aroldo, Boccanegra or an amended La Battaglia di Legnano as an alternative. The theatre did not consider these proposals to be a fulfilment of his contract and Verdi hurriedly cast around for another subject. With time pressing he settled on an adaptation of an existing five-act libretto by Eugene Scribe. This had been already set to music five years before by Auber for the Paris Opéra with the title Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué. It was a subject that had tempted Bellini and like many of Scribe’s libretti was based on an actual historical event, the assassination in 1792 of Gustavus III of Sweden at a masked ball in the Stockholm opera house. To explain the event Scribe had added a fictitious love affair between the King and the wife of his secretary. Given contemporary events in Italy and Europe, the censors demanded much more besides, including transfer to a pre-Christian age. Verdi accepted a change of location, and for the King to become a Duke, but he insisted on a period such as that of Louis XVI’s court. These accepted changes were submitted to the censor when Verdi arrived in Naples in January 1858. Any chance of their acceptance went with the news of Felice Orsini’s attempt on the life of Napoleon III of France in Paris on 13 January. The Naples Chief of Police ruled that the opera text would have to be re-written in its entirety to preclude any dancing on stage and the murder must be off-stage.

In the ensuing impasse the San Carlo management decided that another poet would re-set the opera to an entirely new libretto meeting all the local legal and censorial requirements. Verdi refused to have anything to do with the new libretto and the San Carlo sued him for breach of contract. Verdi counterclaimed for damages and had much popular support in Naples. The case was settled out of court with the theatre management charges dropped on condition that Verdi returned in the autumn to present a revival of Simon Boccanegra. During the legal brouhaha Verdi cast around for an alternative theatre for his opera and noted that a play titled Gustavus III had been given in Rome. He initiated secret negotiations with the Rome impresario Jacovacci to premiere Un Ballo in Maschera, in that city subject to approval by the Papal Censor. After some prevarication the censors agreed to accept the principles of the plot and the action, provided the location was removed from Europe to North America at the time of the English domination. In this revised scenario Gustavus became Riccardo Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, whilst his secretary became Renato, a Creole. Un Ballo in Maschera was premiered at the Teatro Apollo, Rome, on 17 February 1859 to wide acclaim. 

Of all Verdi operas Un Ballo in Maschera is the one most concerned with love and conjugal fidelity. No love duet in all Verdi matches that of Riccardo and Amelia in act 2 as he goes to meet her at the gallows field where she has gone to pick the herb to cure her of illicit love. The role of Riccardo is a dream for a lyric tenor with good legato, a touch of heft and capacity for vocal brio. It requires a greater degree of vocal elegance than the Duke in Rigoletto whilst also requiring the singer to express the frivolousness of the role’s character - so clearly expressed in the music. There has been no better tenor suited to the role in the past sixty years than Carlo Bergonzi the Riccardo on this issue. His phrasing in La rivedra nell’estasi (With rapture I shall look upon her. CD 2 tr 3) is vocal elegance personified; similarly his characterisation of Riccardo’s light-heartedness at Ulrica’s abode (CD 1 tr. 12-15). His ardent declaration of love as he meets Amelia under the gallows (CD 1 tr. 19) is likewise flighted as is the wonderful love duet that follows.

Amelia, the object of Riccardo’s love, requires a lyrico spinto soprano who can match the tenor for ardent phrasing in the act 2 love duet, cut through the textures and soar above the orchestra in the preceding aria, Ecco l’orrido campo (CD 1 tr. 17). It is a role that has appealed to some admired singers of Brünnhilde, as is the case here with Birgit Nilsson who was contracted to Decca for their ground-breaking Ring Cycle under Solti. Whether it was pay-back time for Decca, who also recorded Nilsson as Lady Macbeth and Tosca, or Solti’s choice I do not know. But whilst her clear strong silver tone cuts through the orchestral textures, she lacks Italianate colour and does not seem to identify with the role.

As Renato, a true Verdi baritone role with both a lyrically expressive aria, Alla vita che t’arride (CD 1 tr. 4) and a dramatically vehement one, Eri tu (CD 2 tr. 7), Cornell Macneil brings good tone with the odd moment of poor legato. A more serious weakness comes with the casting of Sylvia Stahlmann as the page Oscar who has a vital part to play in the evolution of the plot. Stahlmann’s voice lacks flexibility and lightness with some thin tone and even acidity.

The casting scores a big success with the performance of Giulietta Simionato as the gypsy Ulrica. She is a formidable singing actress and brings all her skills of characterisation and tonal security to Ulrica’s all too brief, but vital, scene (CD 1 trs 8-10).

In this his first recorded Ballo, Solti, on the rostrum, is often hard driving with excessive orchestral dynamics to the fore. I remember owning a highlights LP from this recording. So great was the density and modulation of the choral tuttis of the final scene as Riccardo is stabbed (CD 2 tr. 16) and the concluding Notte d’orror (Night of horror. CD 2 tr. 18) that my sophisticated stylus would not play it, nor would that of the quality hi-fi department of my retailer. The disc was replaced, twice, with no improvement. At least in this CD manifestation I can hear it properly, but thank goodness for my large reference speakers! Apart from the very forward orchestral dynamics and placing of the chorus, the soloists being placed a little further back, the often-restricted sound of Rome’s Santa Cecilia has come up well. Decca returned to that venue for another go at Ballo in June 1970 featuring the young Pavarotti in his vocal prime and Renata Tebaldi past her best (Double Decca 460-762-2). The company were more successful with Solti’s second shot at the work recorded in London in 1982 and 1983. This features Pavarotti again, now more mannered, and the gleaming soprano of Margaret Price as Amelia. Solti is more relaxed showing a far greater appreciation of Verdi’s lines. But there are considerable rivals to this issue at mid-price. Most notable are the RCA Rome recording of 1966 with Bergonzi, again in fine voice, and Leontyne Price as an incomparable Amelia. Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist make up the rest of a fine cast with all being on good vocal form (GD 86645). Regrettably the recording has its rough patches. Also worthy of consideration is Muti’s London recording with Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Pierro Cappuccilli, Fiorenza Cossotto and Reri Grist making a fine quintet of soloists (EMI 566510 2). 

Robert J Farr



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