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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Un Ballo in Maschera - Opera in three acts (1859)
Gustavo - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor)
Amelia - Antonietta Stella (soprano)
Renato - Mario Zanasi (baritone)
Oscar - Margherita Guglielmi (soprano)
Ulrica - Lucia Danieli (mezzo)
Cristiano - Mario Frasca (bass-baritone)
Samuel - Plinio Clabassi (bass)
Tom - Antonio Zerbini (bass)
Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus
The NHK Symphony Orchestra/Oliviero de Fabritiis
rec. live, Tokyo, September 1967
Audio: Mono
Video 4:3; Colour; NTSC
Region Code: 0
Subtitles: English, German, Spanish, French, Italian
VAI 4436
[145.00 + bonus: 24.00]
Experience Classicsonline

‘They don’t make them like that any more’ is a recurring theme in different walks of life. It can certainly be applied to this production recorded in 1967 when the singers were paramount and the director ancillary. There are two immediate counter points. First, from time to time in the darker scenes on this ‘grainy’ recording, it is difficult to follow the action. Two examples are Gustav putting the commission into Cristiano’s pocket and the cloak swapping of Gustav and Renato. Indeed so grainy is the recording that for the beginning of the prelude to act two with the camera back of house, focused centre orchestra, you may have difficulty in seeing maestro Fabritiis. Second, and for me quite irritating, are the occasions when singers feel the need to respond to audience applause at an aria’s end by variously smiling, bowing, curtseying, blowing kisses, or putting their right hand to their heart. At an extreme I wonder why they are performing: to be part of an opera or to be an individual performer for the audience? It occurs all too frequently on this recording with consequential plot interruption. OK, whinge over.

This is indeed a singer’s production with Carlo Bergonzi (Gustav) in one of his signature roles. From the introspective emotion of thinking of Amelia in La rivedrà nell’estasi to the full blown passionate declaration of Oh qual soave brivido this is Bergonzi at his best: rock steady notes, classic lines, strong dynamics, apparently effortless power and true beauty of tone.

At the date of this production Bergonzi was at the height of his powers. So too was Antonietta Stella. Her superb vocal instrument copes easily with this role for the dramatic, rather than coloratura, soprano. The plethora of low notes does not trouble her. Her graveyard aria Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa is exemplary, with the occasional then fashionable wobble on high, dramatic arm waving and additional non-Verdian tearful sobs. Her duet with Bergonzi in this scene is arguably the high point of the drama: certainly they set about making it so. His own Non sai tu che se l’anima mia is powerfully delivered; she produces deep moving textures for Ah! deh soccorri tu. They then let vocal rip in the remainder of the duet. Most of it is delivered in postures typical of the time of recording: adopted not for plot authenticity but to let their voices ring out over the auditorium for greater audience appreciation.

Although passionately declared, their love remains unconsummated: thus Renato, sung by Mario Zanasi is not the cuckolded husband. Inevitably he believes otherwise – particularly having become the poignant butt for black comedy at the ‘unveiling’ of his wife. Zanasi moves from the serious minded courtier friend of Alla vita che t’arride with its strong colouring. He becomes the distraught husband in Eri tu che macchiavi which he packs with emotion and again non-Verdian gulps. He delivers all the colouring and tone that we would expect of this dramatic baritone.

The overarching darkness belongs to Ulrica, the fortune-teller, here sung by Lucia Danieli. Her low lying and rich tone produces a real air of fearfulness – particularly in her ominous description of the field or graveyard that Amelia must visit: della cità all’occaso. Her warning to Gustav that he will die by the hand of a friend is truly chilling. Having overcome his opening misery of Su, fatemi largo, Mario Frasca (Cristiano) relieves the gloom by rallying the people to the king leading into a rousing chorus at the end of act one.

Margherita Guglielmi, as Gustav’s page, provides the counterbalancing lightness and gaiety to Ulrica’s foreboding. She is the alter ego of the playful part of her master’s character and how superbly she displays that here. Her two arias, with a bow to the French style, require a light, lithe, bell-like sound which Guglielmi provides with ringing clarity.

Her tripping across the stage to set herself for her first number is so dated and so well done that I can not but smile each time I see it. Her facial expressions match her excellent stage movements – which of course she reverses by prancing to the other side of the set before delivering the second verse. Her invitation to the ball is delivered with an irrepressible sense of vocal fun. She makes a significant contribution to the quintet concluding that scene where it is so easy to pick out her strong soaring soprano. She provides the vocal gaiety at the ball in Saper vorreste delivered with a well judged and teasing tone.

Pinio Clabassi (Samuel) and Antonio Zerbini (Tom) are the ineffective plotters who had failed dismally before Renato joins them. Clabassi’s Ve’, se di notte, when Amelia is revealed, is an impressive deep brown sound of scorn accompanied by the quietly dramatic, mock-respectful sweeping of his cloak. My only reservation about their accompaniments in the ensembles is that in the opening it seems to me that their staccato is too prominent. However apart from that, it is well balanced with the two of them finely matched.

Hardly surprisingly with a recording of this vintage, the chorus is not as clear as the soloists. The orchestral playing is splendidly supportive of the singers – it has to be from time to time when the soloist decides how long an important note will last.

The curtain-calls taken again remind me of the period of the recording including the three principals appearing front of curtain at the end of the very first scene. The principals then appear front of curtain at the end of each of the three acts together with the conductor.

I have not troubled you with Verdi’s problems with the censors – a commentary on which appears in most books on the opera and accompanying booklets. Verdi finally accepted a setting in Boston with the king as governor. In the Swedish setting with Gustavus III, Renato is Captain Anckarstroem, Ulrica is Mademoiselle Arvidson and Sam and Tom are Counts Ribbing and Horn. This production, set in eighteenth century Sweden, is obviously an amalgam of the characters but is none the worse for that.

As I have mentioned this is the recording of the live performance in Tokyo: very grainy but musically powerful. The settings are comparatively simple and the costumes conventional for the period. For a settings contrast try the remarkably stunning sets – and that can be taken complimentarily or pejoratively - by William Dudley in the John Schlesinger production of 1990 for Salzburg. There Domingo/Barstow/Nucci are in similarly powerful form in acting/singing styles twenty years later with the advantage of updated technology (TDK DV-CLOPUBIM). However, with one reservation, you really should have a Bergonzi / Stella / Zanasi recording in your collection and certainly the delightfully outstanding Oscar of Guglielmi. My slight reservation is not the mono sound or the seriously grainy picture but the price. You can search around but generally it is a fiver more that the TDK and nearly a tenner more that the Metropolitan Opera’s two offerings with Pavarotti on both Decca (0743227) and Deutsche Grammophon (0730299).

There is a reasonably uninteresting bonus of an interview with Antonietta Stella. A single sheet accompanies the disc with the track list on one side and the cast list on the other and that is it. No directorial details here: this is a production for the singers.

Robert McKechnie


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