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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera - Opera in Three Acts (1871)
Libretto by Antonio Somma after Eugène Scribe's libretto Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué
Riccardo – Jon Vickers (tenor)
Renato – Ettore Bastianini (baritone)
Amelia – Amy Shuard (soprano)
Ulrica – Regina Resnik (mezzo)
Oscar – Joan Carlyle (soprano)
Silvano – Victor Godfrey (baritone)
Horn- Michael Langdon (bass)
Ribbing – David Kelly (bass)
Covent Garden Opera Chorus
Covent Garden Orchestra/Edward Downes
rec. live, Royal Opera House, 23 February 1962
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE ROHS009 [48:07 + 73:32]
Experience Classicsonline

This live recording, made in February 1962 in the Royal Opera House, preserves a performance that might otherwise have been lost to posterity had it not been for the forethought of Lord Harewood. After negotiations for a BBC broadcast fell through, Harewood arranged for a private recording to be made for his own archive. It’s that recording which appears on this CD.
Featuring a characteristic “Garden” cast of the 1960s, with its mix of international and home-grown talent, this set allows us to hear some performances that have not otherwise been enshrined for posterity, and will stir some happy memories in Covent Garden regulars of the day.
At the time of this particular revival, Jon Vickers had been a stalwart of this production for some years. He sings a rich-toned Gustavo, phrasing his music with an elegance and subtlety which may come as a surprise to some listeners, given his later rough-hewn interpretations of Tristan, Otello and Peter Grimes. He sings throughout with a combination of fine legato line and impassioned involvement, and presents a far more positive figure than the rather effete character that some performances have suggested. His full-blooded duet with Amelia is thoroughly believable, but he can also fine down his voice for some of his more delicate or introspective solos.
Bastianini’s house debut as Renato created a very favourable impression at the time. By all accounts his was a commanding stage presence allied to acute psychological understanding of the character. Thus he moves convincingly from being the ally of Gustavo in the early part of the opera to his implacable foe towards the end. He sings throughout with beautiful tone and due regard to musical rather than histrionic values. His scenes with Amelia which open Act 3 operate at the highest level; his implacable fury at Amelia’s supposed infidelity contrasts effectively with Amy Shuard’s impassioned pleading. “Eri tu” creates a memorable effect in its judicious use of dynamics, legato and word painting. A classic performance.
Amy Shuard is a name that is, sadly, virtually forgotten nowadays; as older opera-goers will know, she was Covent Garden’s leading dramatic soprano of the period. Having progressed through the Italian repertoire via the likes of Aida and Amelia to Turandot, of which she became a famous interpreter, she moved on to the heavier German roles such as Elektra and Brunnhilde. Shuard made relatively few recordings so it’s valuable to have this memento of her performance on CD. As recorded her voice has rather a hard edge, but she negotiates Verdi’s soaring phrases with aplomb and her dramatic involvement is never in doubt. Her account of Amelia’s big Act 2 scena is exciting and vocally secure, and she follows this with impassioned singing in her duet with Gustavo. That she is also capable of considerable subtlety is evidenced by the quiet intensity of her singing in Morro, ma prima in grazia.
Regina Resnik makes the most of the role of Ulrica, giving the kind of no-holds barred dramatic performance we have come to associate with her. Joan Carlyle, another familiar at Covent Garden at the time, sings Oscar with charm and aplomb. Smaller roles are taken by Covent Garden stalwarts of the day. Last but not least, it is good to hear that great Verdian Edward Downes shaping the work with characteristic fire and passion.
The recording is acceptable rather than outstanding, but engineers have worked miracles on what sounds like rather intractable source material. The placement of the microphone allows us to hear someone’s intermittent coughs (the prompter perhaps?) in glorious close-up, but this is rarely distracting. There is a brief passage missing from the original tapes at the end of Act 3 Scene 1, at which point the music fades out before resuming at the start of Scene 3.
With a lavish booklet containing full texts, translations and production photos this is a fine memento of a historic performance.
Ewan McCormick


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