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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera - opera in three acts (1859)
Riccardo, Count of Warwick and Governor -  Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Renato, his secretary -  Louis Quilico (baritone); Amelia, Renato’s his wife, loved by Riccardo -  Katia Ricciarelli (soprano); Ulrica, a fortune teller -  Bianca Berini (mezzo); Oscar, Riccardo’s page -  Judith Blegen (soprano); Silvano, a sailor -  John Darrenkamp (baritone); Samuel, enemy of Riccardo -  William Wilderman (bass); Tom, another enemy of Riccardo -  Julien Robins (bass)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, New York/Giuseppe Patane
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 16 February 1980.
Directed by Elijah Moshinsky.
Stage Design: Peter Wexler.
Costume Design: Peter J Hall
TV Director: Brian Large.
Picture format: 4:3. Colour. NTSC Region 0.
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese
DECCA 0743227 [2DVDs: 145:00 + 25:00 (interviews)]


Experience Classicsonline

By the time of the composition of Ballo in Maschera, Verdi was rich, powerful and famous. 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. Instead, Verdi chose the subject of Un Ballo in Maschera based on the true story of the assassination of Gustavus, King of Sweden, at a ball. Verdi 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 two hundred and ninety seven lines, nearly one third of 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 the transfer of location to Boston, America, the King to become a Duke and the assassination to be a stabbing not a 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 with the original King becoming Riccardo, Earl Of Warwick, an English colonial governor, and the Swedish Count Ankarstrom, becoming Renato his secretary.

Riccardo secretly loves Amelia, the wife of his secretary and trusted friend Renato, who warns him that conspirators are plotting to kill him. Despite the warnings, Riccardo goes, disguised, to a gypsy soothsayer to test her powers. There he finds Amelia pleading to be rid of her feelings for him. She is told to pick an herb, at midnight, from below the gallows. Testing the gypsy, Riccardo, incognito, is told the first to clasp his hand, will kill him. No one will take his hand until his friend, Renato, arrives and greets him. Amelia and the Riccardo meet as she visits the gallows gathering the necessary herbs, and in a magnificent duet declare their mutual love. Renato arrives to warn the King of imminent danger and is left to guard his veiled wife. The conspirators arrive and force her to reveal her identity. Renato believing himself to be betrayed by both his wife and friend joins the plot against the life of Riccardo. Lots are drawn to choose the assassin and Renato is, to his vengeful joy, chosen. Meanwhile the King realises he must break with Amelia and he writes an order appointing her husband to a post abroad accompanied by his wife. But this is only revealed after Renato fatally wounds him with a gunshot at a masked ball. Riccardo dies proclaiming Amelia’s innocence and asks that all his enemies be pardoned.

The DVD box has a sticker proclaiming this to be ‘the rarely seen revised version set in colonial America’. Well it is certainly the version that Verdi ended up presenting in Rome rather than that which he had intended for Naples. But seen? The 2005 recording under Chailly (review) uses the American names although it’s staging is idiosyncratic in respect of venue. At the time of this production at the Met, the Boston edition was the accepted version on record and had been so since the Callas-Di Stefano recording of 1956 (review), the Leontyne Price with Bergonzi of 1962 (GDS 86645) through the three Decca recordings, 1960 (review), 1970 (460 762-2) and the 1982 digital recording (410 210-2), the latter two featuring Pavarotti as Riccardo. This choice for recording was probably influenced by what the singers knew and appeared in most at that period. In the bonus interviews Katia Ricciarelli refers to the difficulties of mixing the two and using the wrong name when used to singing the other version. Certainly by the mid-1970s the Swedish version was the order of the day at Covent Garden in Otto Schenk’s memorable production. When I caught up with it in 1975, Reri Grist, Carlo Bergonzi and Sherrill Milnes were parts of a very strong cast rehearsed by Elijah Moshinsky, the director in this Met production.

Moshinky’s production efforts in this performance are severely constrained not only by the inadequate, even inappropriate and sparse sets of Peter Wexler and the unimaginative costumes of Peter J Hall, but also the acting ability of the principals. No one ever accused Pavarotti of being a great actor on the operatic stage, a state of affairs that regressed with his increasing obesity. Here, he is merely corpulent; as is his secretary. But only in the final scene of the opera, as Riccardo dies after being shot by Renato, does he let his face and body into the action (Disc 2 Ch.13). Riccardo is a role that suits Pavarotti to perfection vocally and he does sing with elegant phrasing and open-throated tone throughout. His manner is matched only by Bergonzi, who was an equally wooden actor. Pavarotti’s singing of Amici miei in act one (Disc 1 Ch.4), Di tu se fedele in act 2 (Ch.16) and his contribution to the lovely love duet of act two, which Verdi never bettered, together with his singing in the last two scenes (Disc 2 Chs.8-14) represent the tenor at his best. In terms of beauty of singing, and regrettably limitation of acting, Katia Ricciarelli is a compromised Amelia. An attractive woman, she looks wonderful throughout, her silvery soprano rising to every challenge is a delight on the ear. But, Amelia is a woman with a terrible guilty secret whom her husband threatens with death whilst she pleads to see their child one last time at the start of act three (Disc 2 Ch.1) and in the following aria Morro, ma prima in grazia. Not enough of Amelia’s fraught situation shows on Ricciarelli’s face or in her body at these moments. Much the same applies to here singing of Ecco l’orrido campo as she arrives at the gallows in act two to collect the plant specified by Ulrica. There the set looks like an over-large bedstead; it could not have been helped! Having criticised Ricciarelli’s acting, I have to admit that I prefer her singing to that of Barstow at Salzburg with her uneven legato and occluded tone and I say this despite the latter’s outstandingly fraught portrayal (review). 

As I infer, if there is an actual gallows in act two the video director keeps it largely from sight. This may be no bad thing if the set for Ulrica’s location is anything to go by. In most productions, Ulrica is often, and appropriately, shown near a den or cave where she could certainly pass for a witch. Here, in white bonnet she looks more like someone’s aunt who might, at worst, be about to deliver a little sermon on life’s slings and arrows to the various people who arrive down an incongruous large rear staircase. Despite this limitation of costume, and lacking the ideal vocal thrust in the chest register, Bianca Berini holds up well and is expressive in her singing and facial expression (Disc 1 Chs.11-17). Appropriately well dressed for the part and pert of figure is Judith Blegen as a sprightly Oscar, Riccardo’s page. Both her Volta la terrea in act one (Disc 1 Ch.8) and Saper vorreste (Disc2 Ch.12) are sung well and with expression, although a touch more colour would have helped erase memories of the non pareil Reri Grist in this role. Perhaps the most involved acting and vocal expression among the principals comes from Louis Quilico as Renato. His nut-centred Verdi baritone would be widely welcomed on today’s operatic stages. At the time of this recording he got very few chances on record to portray his strengths. Both his Alla vita (Disc 1 Ch.6) and Eri Tu  (Disc 2 Ch.4) are phrased with distinction and a wide tonal range. Also worthy of note is the singing and acting of the veteran William Wilderman as Samuel.

The sound starts a little echoey but settles down and the picture has cleaned up well for its age. Giuseppe Patane, vastly versed and competent in this repertoire, keeps the drama and lyricism of Verdi’s opera in good balance. The extended curtain calls are boring and repetitive. The bonus interviews are interesting, particularly with hindsight. Pavarotti is also to be seen on the 1991 Met recording of the Swedish version (review) with production, set, costume design and lighting under the single control of Piero Faggioni. With Levine on the podium, tempi are a little brisk at times. Pavarotti is less mobile than here and his voice dryer at the top, whist Aprile Millo is an involved Amelia, although a little over-vibrant at times. Whilst also in 4:3 format the picture quality is superior (DG 440 073 029-9 GH).

Robert J Farr




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