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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Un ballo in maschera (1859)
Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Riccardo; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Renato; Maria Callas (soprano) – Amelia; Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) – Ulrica; Eugenia Ratti (soprano) – Oscar; Enzo Giordano (baritone) – Silvano; Silvio Maionica (bass) – Samuel; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Tom; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – A Judge/A Servant of Amelia
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. 4–9 September, 1956 in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111278-79 [70:01 + 62:01]

Experience Classicsonline

Recorded exactly a month after Columbia’s Il trovatore, conducted by Karajan and, in the main, with the same principals, this Ballo also finds Callas in uncommonly good voice. The recording is what we have come to expect from La Scala of this vintage, clear but not very atmospheric, the La Scala acoustics being fairly dry. After Karajan’s alert conducting of Trovatore, one would have thought that Antonino Votto might stand out as reliable and rather routine. In fact he is better than his reputation. The prelude is well-shaped – perhaps a bit laid-back – and the opening chorus is rendered dark and ominous, laying bare the major conflict of the drama. Likewise he handles the stormy prelude to act 2 with the poignancy it needs. Both Amelia’s aria and the ensuing duet with Riccardo are really ignited by the conductor. So by and large Votto provides a fine canvas as backdrop before which this taut masterpiece is to unfold.

The La Scala Chorus and Orchestra – the chorus trained by legendary Norberto Mola – are prime forces and the line-up of comprimario singers boasts names like the reliable basses Silvio Maionica and Nicola Zaccaria as the leading conspirators. Michael Scott’s description in the liner-notes of Eugenia Ratti’s voice as ‘a typical steam-whistle like scream’ is to my mind rather unfair. It is no doubt a bright voice but I hear it rather as silvery and spirited – in other words what I expect from an Oscar. Fedora Barbieri is also rather unflatteringly described in the notes, but while she wasn’t quite in the Simionato or Cossotto class she was a true mezzo-soprano in the old Italian school and she is a strong and expressive Ulrica in the sinister scene in her dwelling.

Tito Gobbi, always responsive to words, the dramatic situation and the state of mind of his characters, makes the most of Renato, even though the first act aria Alla vita che t’arride is a bit bloodless. At least partly the conductor is to blame for not giving more positive support – Leinsdorf and Solti in their 1960s recordings are much more vivid. As usual Gobbi also has his moments of pinched tone. But in the first scene of act 3 he really shows his mettle. His wrath and despair at Amelia’s and Riccardo’s deceit is exposed in horrifying terms and when he pours his contempt on Riccardo in the aria, words initially almost fails him. Eri tu (It was you) he whisper towards Riccardo’s portrait, and then the wrath grows. Then, when he sings O dolcezze perdute! (O bliss that I have lost!) his tone and expression becomes so loving. The whole aria is a horrifying zooming-in on the soul of a person whose whole world has been broken into splinters. This is one of the great assumptions on record!

Callas on top form never misses an opportunity to wring the last drop of intensity out of her two arias and the act 2 scene by the gallows is a masterpiece of visual singing. Her colouring of the phrases is so expressive that we instinctively know what she looks like. As a contrast the resigned Morrò, ma prima in grazia in act 3 is eternally moving.

The duet in act 2, Teco io sto, has a special affection for me, since it was the first ever recording of the piece that I bought 45 years ago on an LP ‘Callas in Duet’. Hearing it in context it is even more obvious what a superb radar-couple she and Di Stefano were at their best. Di Stefano’s ardent and warm Riccardo is one of his best recorded roles and he is hushed and mellifluous in Di tu se fedele in the Ulrica scene but I wish Votto had speeded it up a bit – I miss the bounce. È scherzo od è follia is much closer to the mark and Di Stefano sings it with a chuckle in the voice.

In the last act Riccardo’s aria is warmly sung but there are some unwelcome signs of pinched tone here that were to become more prominent during the next few years. The death scene is however soft and touching.

Un ballo in maschera had few recordings during the first two decades of the LP era. Besides a 1954 Cetra set with Tagliavini as a good but slightly lachrymose Riccardo, there was Solti’s on Decca with Birgit Nilsson and Carlo Bergonzi - it was to have been Jussi Björling but the conductor and tenor ended up on non-speaking terms during the sessions in Rome, and when the recording was resumed Björling was already dead. Then came an RCA set with Leontyne Price and again Bergonzi. The latter has always been my favourite with Leinsdorf a more positive conductor than either Votto or Solti, Bergonzi the ideal Riccardo and Leontyne Price’s smoky-toned Amelia less individual than Callas but still a splendid assumption. The supporting cast is excellent and the sound is first class. Of later essays first prize must go to Muti on EMI with Martina Arroyo and Placido Domingo. Abbado on DG is a runner-up with Ricciarelli and Domingo (again) and Bruson a fine Renato. Whichever version one has or buys Callas’s and Gobbi’s contributions to the Votto set will never be surpassed and Di Stefano is up there among the best, too.

Göran Forsling 



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