Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera (1859) [124:46]
Riccardo - Jan Peerce
Renato - Robert Merrill
Amelia - Zinka Milanov
Ulrica - Marian Anderson
Oscar - Roberta Peters
Silvano - Calvin Marsh
Samuele - Giorgio Tozzi
Tom - Norman Scott
Un Giudice - James McCracken
Un servo - Charles Anthony
Chorus and Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. live broadcast, 10 December 1955. mono
SONY CLASSICAL 88697910022 [48:23 + 76:23]
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 especially pleasing.
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 ways
Significant historical importance, a strong cast even given some faults and decent sound.