It is unusual, to say the least, for a recording of Un Ballo
in Maschera to have Ulrica on the front cover as the 'star'.
However, Marian Anderson deserves this credit among other things
because this was her first performance in this role early in
1955 and it marked the breaking of the colour-barrier at the
Met. She was the first African-American artist in a leading
role at the Met and led the way there for other terrific black
singers such as Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Grace Bumbry.
One may carp about some elements but the historical significance
of this performance is undeniable.
Marian Anderson's style was quite different from that of other
Ulricas active as during the 1940s and 1950s, such as Fedora
Barbieri, Ebe Stignani and Giulietta Simionato. The Italian
tradition of these singers, influenced by verismo performance
practice, was later continued by Fiorenza Cossotto in the 1970s.
Marian Anderson’s voice and portrayal are quite different and
create a vivid impression. Her singing is less extroverted than
Cossotto but the climaxes lack neither strength nor quality.
She was a mellow contralto, a refined instrument and her temperament
was more reserved than singers like Barbieri or Cossotto.
There is room for more than one interpretation of this part
and as long as one does not demand the stronger, more forthright
tones associated with Barbieri or Simionato then there is a
lot to enjoy in Marian Anderson’s performance. Perhaps her lack
of Italian fervour is less noticeable to a public used to international
casts and recordings. Recent performers of Ulrica's part include
diverse nationalities such as the Polish Ewa Podlès, the American
Florence Quivar and more recently Elena Zaremba who is Russian.
Some comparisons will help point up the differences in Anderson’s
style. In the scene from Act 1, Scene 2 Fiorenza Cossotto is
more explosive with a vibrancy and hollow ‘devilish’ tone from
the outset. ‘Re dell'abisso, affrettati’, is sung by the Italian
in a smooth arc with her phrases moulding with the orchestral
accompaniment; evidently the result of much rehearsal and experience.
Her tone is occasionally coarse however and she is inclined
to take an exterior view of the character. Her emphasis is on
strong tones and phrasing rather than word pointing. This dramatic
portrayal means her vowels are sometimes distorted at the start
and end of phrases; at times she tries a little too hard.
Anderson communicates the hushed, clandestine nature of this
invocation effectively: she speaks the words of the spell trance-like
as opposed to rallying the devils in the way that Cossotto does.
Anderson’s deeper voice is less immediately attention-grabbing
than Cossotto’s vibrant mezzo, but her beautiful phrasing and
clearly articulated words have an impressive cumulative effect.
Unfortunately the voice is unstable at times with a more marked
wobble than her contemporary studio recording also with Mitropoulos.
The present version, while bringing out the vividness of her
diction and the orchestral chords before and after her scene,
also highlights a problematic wobble on some, but not all sustained
notes. Her voice is quite responsive but no longer youthfully
refulgent. This is mainly evident in a slight lack of bite on
low notes which can quiver. Occasionally a few phrases are less
than ideally steady. This is underlined by the recording which
is really excellent for its time but, not unexpectedly, lacks
the cushion provided by modern stereo sound.
The differing qualities of the two performances can be encapsulated
by the repeat ‘Tre volte a me, a me parlò’ where Cossotto breaks
up the line and hams it up in a way that may have been impressive
in the opera house. Anderson eclipses that with a rich tone
and seriousness singing the words simply and with beauty. The
following section with Ulrica is performed more quickly with
Muti and is more exciting although Mitropoulos and Anderson
are intriguing in their own way. The characterization is more
rounded in any case even if the voice is not ideally steady
though phrased expertly.
Zinka Milanov's performance here is not one of the highlights
of her discography. 'Ecco l'orrido campo' was a little lunged-at
and there is rarely the intensity and hypnotic quality which
raises her earlier broadcasts to classic status. The sound is
preferable here but in most regards this singer, able as she
is was at her best ten years earlier. Although there were still
triumphs to come in the theatre Sony would be well advised to
restore some of her earlier performances to the 'official' catalogue;
I reviewed a terrific performance of La Gioconda from
the Met from 1939 on the Immortal Performances label. Her vocalising
in 'Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa' is initially quite polished
but rather external and one misses the intensity of Maria Callas
or Maria Caniglia. In that aria the high notes are not a pleasure
and the column of sound Milanov had at her best - like that
of such other singers as Kirsten Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson
- is not reliable here. Her contributions in the duet show spirit
but are also rather disappointing. Even more than with Peerce
the advice is that you need to hear the 1944 broadcast to get
a better idea of what this artist could achieve in this music.
I rather wish that the line-up that recorded Tosca for
RCA in 1957 - Milanov, Björling and Warren - had recorded Un
Ballo in Maschera instead, since that cast, in good form,
would be difficult to match on record. As it is we do not have
a very good performance by Milanov as Amelia in good sound.
Jan Peerce had a career of enviable diversity, longevity and
considerable critical esteem. This success is barely reflected
in the sparse scatter of his studio recordings. It is only when
we consider the numerous live recordings that you begin to be
aware of the importance of this singer at the Met. Over a broad
repertoire Peerce’s musicality proved to be an enviable asset.
If he did not always make sounds as beautiful or as warm as
those of his contemporaries there was always something interesting
and engaging in his performances. There is much here that is
intelligent and musical – such as his phrasing in ''Di’ tu se
fedele'' where he never lets the rhythm droop. His voice is
admirably unified even reaching for the taxing high notes. This
recording documents slightly more effortful singing by comparison
with his earlier broadcasts which were more beautiful and lyrical.
The effect is still that of a great singer in his prime.
Peerce's voice was beautifully projected and secure but it was
less honeyed, less caressing than Gigli or di Stefano. Giuseppe
di Stefano, for instance, in his recordings has a silken smoothness
which is quite unlike Peerce. Björling is another singer with
a beautiful golden voice which was not lacking in musicality
– he is perhaps the finest non-Italian proponent on record.
Di Stefano lacked the security which Peerce had in abundance
– try the extraordinary passage ‘La rivedrà nell'estasi’ in
Act 1. Even though his singing may well have been risky it always
came in the form of a likeable and bewitching sound. Peerce
could not sing the hushed ‘forse la soglia attinse’ or the lilting
duet with Amelia like Di Stefano, and I believe that stands
for most tenors who have sung the part. Di Stefano etches phrases
in your memory and in this regard Peerce is out-manoeuvred since
although he sings with eloquence and variety I am not bewitched
as I am with such greats as Di Stefano, Gigli or later Pavarotti.
Peerce's performance is one I respect rather than love.
Robert Merrill, arguably the greatest Verdi baritone in the
world between the death of Leonard Warren and the ascent of
Piero Cappuccilli in the 1970s, was an excellent performer of
Verdi's roles. He famously sang Pere Germont with Arturo Toscanini
in La Traviata in the 1940s. Unfortunately, just as some
of the main singers here, Milanov, Peerce and Anderson included,
are rather past their best, this recording captures Merrill's
performance if anything too early in his career. He was a consistent
artist and although the 1950s were perhaps the time when his
voice was freshest, he gained experience and improved a great
deal as a performer and actor throughout his career right through
to the 1970s. The singing here is a little loud-mouthed and
lacking in variety and cannot compare with the sensitivity of
Tito Gobbi - 'Eri tu' - or the Italian Ettore Bastianini. He
is accomplished but given the standard that Merrill set at his
best - for instance the 1961 Lucia di Lammermoor or 1963
La Traviata with John Pritchard conducting on Decca or
as Escamillo in Karajan's RCA Carmen - this cannot be
counted as his best work.
The rest of the cast includes, even in small roles, stars and
future-stars of the Met - notice James McCracken as the Judge.
It is equal or superior to most other recordings in this regard,
the contributions of Giorgio Tozzi and Roberta Peters being
The overall performance is not perfect. The main singers are
either caught rather late or a little early in their careers
and it is tragic that Anderson could not have made her debut
early on in life like her white contemporaries and really made
a stab at a full operatic career. However, this performance
has significant historical importance, has a strong cast even
given some faults and is in decent sound. I suggest that readers
try to sample extracts before purchasing this set since expectations
are challenged by this performance in positive and some negative