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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


Conner Riddle Songs

Rodzinski Sibelius

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un Ballo in Maschera (1859)
Marcelo Álvarez (tenor) – Riccardo
Violeta Urmana (soprano) – Amelia
Marco Vratogna (baritone) – Renato
Elena Zaremba (alto) – Ulrica
Alessandra Marianelli (soprano) – Oscar
Miguel Sola (baritone) – Samuel
Tom Wilde (baritone) - Tom
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid/Jésus López-Cobos
Mario Martone (stage director)
rec. live, Teatro Real, Madrid, 25, 28 September 2008
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
OPUS ARTE OA1017D [144:00]

Experience Classicsonline

London opera-goers will recognise this production of Ballo as it is the current one in the repertory of the Royal Opera House, also a joint production with Madrid. As you might expect from a film director, Mario Martone’s production is big on visual impact, but only in certain scenes. The gallows field of Act 2 is certainly powerful, evoking a desolate wasteland which also passes for an urban wilderness, while Ulrica’s scene contains chorus members pressed up against a giant cage which seems to encompass the action. Martone’s biggest coup is saved for the transition to the final scene: Riccardo plays out the second scene of Act 3 before a vast mirror which is then lifted and tilted to reflect dancing taking place on the level below. Combined with the dancing on stage it’s a remarkable effect and really packs a punch in the theatre. Even on disc it means that the eye always has something to focus on in that final scene. Elsewhere, though, the setting is a bit plain with the first scenes of Acts 1 and 2 played out on what is virtually a bare stage. I wonder did they blow the budget on the ending?

The best reason to acquire this DVD is for the first rate singing of Marcelo Álvarez. His is a Verdi voice the like of which we are all too starved of today. In sheer publicity terms he has been overshadowed by glitzier colleagues like Villazon or Kaufmann, but when it comes to singing Verdi I still think that there is no-one in the operatic world to match him at the moment. He brings to the role blistering intensity and a real heroic ring which seems only to increase as the evening goes on. Just before the ball scene his great cry of Si, rivederti, Amelia is out of this world and, as in the theatre, it pins you to the back of your seat. Just before this his great aria, Ma se me forza perderti is a gentle, melancholic reflection on the loss of his love, but he perfectly captures Riccardo’s wittier side in Di’ tu se fedele, which rollicks along with vigour the like of which we haven’t heard since Domingo’s prime. He leads the great ensemble in the same scene with verve and wit, but then goes hell for leather at the love duet, reaching heights of excitement and ecstasy that confirm him as the finest Verdi tenor we have. He is matched by Violeta Urmana at the peak of her form. While her success in Verdi may not be quite as outstanding as Álvarez’s, the purity and power of her voice put her towards the front of her rank too. She is very fine in her great Act 2 aria but reaches even greater heights for Morro, ma prima in grazia, still for me one of the finest moments in all Verdi. However, she too is at her finest in the great Act 2 love duet. She and Álvarez run the full gamut of emotions here, from terror through remorse to ecstatic declarations of love and they create thrilling sounds as they do so. Urmana captures Amelia’s remorse before yielding to a euphoric T’amo! which they both launch into with gusto and completely convincing musicality. The climax is thrilling, and this duet alone is part of this disc that I will revisit again and again.

Their colleagues are not quite so distinguished. Marco Vratogna’s Renato is gravelly and rough, and it isn’t always clear what note he’s trying to sing. The dangerous passion is there in Act 3, but that’s not enough to sustain this role. Elena Zaremba’s Ulrica has a wonderfully intense lower register but she fails to thrill at the top. The same cannot be said of Marianelli’s Oscar, though, capturing the skittish playfulness of the character to a T and dancing round the coloratura with ease. López-Cobos’s reading of the piece is rather fast-paced, missing some of the rampant emotionalism of the love theme, especially when it appears on full strings at the start of Act 3 Scene 2. The pulse doesn’t quicken as it should in some of the key dramatic moments either, such as Amelia’s first entry in Act 1 which sounds underpowered. However there is a real sense of cumulative power for Amelia’s unmasking in Act 2 and, especially, for drawing the lots in Act 3.

Martone goes with the work’s American setting though he updates it to what feels like the mid-nineteenth century: the ladies’ costumes all show pre-Civil War refinement. There is no good reason for this change and it isn’t picked up in any of the action, but it doesn’t get in the way either so there’s nothing actively to complain about. All of this means that the real reason for picking up this disc is the singing of the two leads. The field of recommendable Ballos on DVD is not exactly crowded and the competition for this one comes mainly from Pavarotti and Domingo (twice each), but if you want a modern, wide-screen version that won’t ruffle any feathers and features some excellent Verdi singing from the leads then this one shouldn’t disappoint.

Simon Thompson


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