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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un Ballo in Maschera - opera in three acts (1859)
Francesco Meli - Riccardo; Vladimir Stoyanov - Renato; Kristin Lewis - Amelia; Elisabetta Fiorillo - Ulrica; Serena Gamberoni - Oscar; Filippo Polinelli - Silvano
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma/Gianluigi Gelmetti
rec. Teatro Regio di Parma, Italy October 2011
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i; Region ABC
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese
Reviewed in surround
C MAJOR 724304 [138.00: Opera; 11.00: Introductory Bonus]

The first thing to say about this issue is a repeat of my review for La Forza del Destino, viz: this is part of the Tutto Verdi series being issued by C Major. Be warned that the unavoidable on-disc clip for the series uses an extract from La Traviata as soundtrack. Do not be misled! As part of Tutto Verdi the disc includes a very useful bonus in the form of a short introduction to the opera and the history of its composition. It introduces the characters as well as telling the story via short clips from the performance. In the case of this particular opera more than 11 minutes is needed because Verdi had a lot of trouble with his censors and had to revise the work extensively before permission was granted for public performance. Nonetheless whoever thought of this introduction, well done!
 
The menu for the opera and the separate acts is only accessed after selecting 'Play Opera'. Not very intuitive. Why not put this at top level? The booklet includes a good, short essay and a plot summary. The playback defaults are surround (for a change) and no subtitles. Having got all this out of the way we go to audience noise for the opening titles, very good.
 
Un Ballo in Maschera is a superb example of Verdi's art and this production presses all the right buttons in that the stage production is what I would call 'consequent' and the musical performance top class. The recording of orchestra and chorus is spacious and makes one aware of the theatre in which it was recorded. That it is edited down from six different live performances implies some trouble has been taken by the technical team to get the very best moments recorded. This amount of cross-cutting does cast doubt on the description 'live' because no member of the audience ever watched what is on this disc.
 
The settings are impressive and sometimes quite beautiful, for example the 'invocation' scene in Act 1 which Verdi simply calls 'Ulrica's Hut' (Ulrica being the fortune teller) here is a rocky cave entrance with rays of light as well as a decidedly erotic group of devotees writhing on a pentagram in a way Verdi's censors would not have approved. The misty and spooky opening to Act 2 in an execution field at night looks very good and gives an atmospheric backdrop to the meeting between Riccardo and Amelia which triggers the assassination at the Masked Ball of the title. The trio that takes place when Renato arrives to complicate matters is very exciting. I felt that Amelia should have been given gloves as well as a veil since the colour of her hands make it exceedingly unlikely that her husband could fail to recognise her. There is another issue which should have been reconsidered by the costume designer. At the end of Act 2 Amelia is dragged off home by her outraged husband. At the beginning of Act 3 we see them arrive home and he immediately vents his anger and threatens to kill her with his sword. However, some time between leaving the execution field and getting home she has had a chance to change her dress and he his uniform. It is hard to imagine he would have restrained his hand for that long! Mostly the costumes are both good to look at and appropriate to the story. The ball scene has a splendid on-stage band and some lively dancing, only the moment of the assassination seems a bit underpowered with a lack of movement at a moment that should surely involve some turmoil. Verdi's music tells a different story of horror and shock.
 
At the first performance at the Apollo in Rome there was no problem with the politics of the assassination of an English Governor in Boston, USA. Verdi had been required to move the entire action from Sweden, with a king being killed, to far off America where such things were uncontentious. According to Kobbé the main excitement was the presence on stage of two negros as the conspirators Samuel and Tom, and a negress as Ulrica. Here there is a parallel piece of casting. The role of Renato was described as a 'Creole' by Verdi and his wife not so described. In this production his wife Amelia is the American Negro singer Kirstin Lewis and Renato the excellent Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov. The fact of this being a mixed marriage is thus maintained without much disturbance to the plot and still more edge is added to the dangerous liaison between Amelia and Riccardo. Also it gives a very good reason to use Ms Lewis who, as a rising star of the Verdi world - see her website at www.kirstin-lewis.com for a startling list of successes - has another chance to show what a spectacular soprano she is in this sort of repertoire. Having watched this I am unsurprised at her status. She is magnificent! She sings with both power and passion in the great scena ed aria of Act 2 and displays a very rich lower register in her voice as well as a clear high voice. She is indeed a lirico-spinto soprano as described on her website. The two leading men Vladimir Stoyanov and Francesco Meli both get well-deserved and prolonged applause for some key arias in Act 3; Stoyanov in"Eri tu" and Meli in "Ma se m'è forza perderti", each bringing proceedings to a halt for a short time. The exciting final scene makes for a grand and theatrical close. Credit must also go to the orchestra and chorus of Parma's theatre who play and sing their hearts out under Gianluigi Gelmetti. Confirmation, as in La Forza, that Gelmetti is a fine Verdi conductor.
 
Dave Billinge 

See also review of DVD release by Robert Farr

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