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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera (1853) [137.00]
Massimiliano Pisapia (tenor) - Riccardo; Chiara Tugi (soprano) - Amelia; Franco Vassallo (baritone) - Renato; Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzo) - Ulrica; Eun Yee You (soprano) - Oscar; Hermann Wallén (baritone) - Silvano; Tuomas Pursio (bass) - Samuel; Metodie Bujor (bass) - Tom; Seung-Hyun Kim (tenor) - Judge, Servant
Leipzig Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus; Leipzig Ballet
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Leipzig Opera, 23 and 26 November 2006
Picture format:1080i Full HD - 16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DTS HD Master
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Booklet notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS 2055107 [137.00]

It is rather odd that in a production hailing from Leipzig, one of the pioneering houses in the field of ‘producer’s opera’, the booklet notes by Jürgen Otten should refer to this staging as “avoiding blatant provocation and calmly telling a story, while relying entirely on the inner power of his subject matter.” This begs the question of what the subject matter of Verdi’s opera actually should be. As is well known, it was the original intention of the composer and librettist that Un ballo in maschera should tell the story of the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, based on the play by Eugène Scribe; this had already formed the basis for Auber’s opera Gustave III. However the Italian censors took fright at the prospect of an opera depicting the murder of a crowned head of Europe on stage; this was only a few years after the ‘Year of Revolutions’ in 1848. The event itself would have been within living memory of some of the audience. Faced with the prospect of having their opera banned, Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma agreed to relocate the action to America, Massachusetts, re-designating the King as the “Count of Warwick, governor of Boston” - where presumably the censors regarded the assassination of a transatlantic ruler as less threatening. The result of this revamping of the score rendered elements in the plot pretty nonsensical; one of the conspirators complains that the ‘Count’ has confiscated his castle … in New England?
 
Since 1945 there has been an increasingly prevalent tendency to honour the creators’ original wishes, and change the setting back to eighteenth century Sweden. This introduces its own anomalies. The plot focuses around the fact that the King has seduced the wife of his best friend; however, in historical terms it is nonsensical to accept that Gustav - whose interest in women was attested to be pretty well non-existent - would ever have seduced any member of the opposite sex. The murder at a masked ball, which is historically accurate, was purely politically motivated and arose from Gustav’s attempts to introduce a system of absolute monarchy into Sweden, at a time when the whole of western European enlightened thought was tending in the opposite direction. Not content with this degree of falsification of historical accuracy, Scribe’s play also puts words of forgiveness into the dying Gustav’s mouth whereby he promises a free pardon to his assassins; in fact the real Anckarström was executed with the most horrible refinements of judicial cruelty. The result of all this is that any idea of realistic production is already a pretty moot point.
 
Here, despite the protestations in the booklet, we are not shown any setting that has any sense of historical reality, either in the Old or the New World, although the costumes of the chorus incline towards America rather than Europe. However the court surrounding the King - or Count as he is called here - have a somewhat elaborate Tartar feel to the costumes. The disguises at the masked ball have more of a flavour of the Venetian carnival or the Brazilian Mardi Gras than anything from more northerly climes. The sets - both these and the costumes the work of Arnaldo Pomdoro - convey no sense of period or location at all. Maybe that is all to the good when neither the Swedish nor the Bostonian settings really have much sense of historical reality anyway. The producer Ermanno Olmi makes a point of conforming to Verdi’s scenario, sticking pretty closely to the indicated stage directions and conveying plenty of dramatic interplay between the characters. There is nothing here which is present simply to shock, and quite a lot which is gripping.
 
The singing is also really pretty good. There seems to be an abundant supply currently of Italian tenors who can deal with Verdi; we have had a whole succession of them in the complete Verdi operas from Parma. Massimiliano Pisapia stands well in that line. However there is a decided lack of light and shade in his performance. Verdi, who had been highly specific in his dynamic instructions in earlier scores such as Il trovatore, seems to have given up the struggle to get his singers to obey these and left them pretty much to their own devices in parts of the score of Ballo. In fact, tenors have always looked for delicate touches which they can employ, although Pisapia happily avoids the intrusive laughs sometimes inserted in È scherzo od è follia (tr. 18). He simply stands and delivers in always mellifluous tones, often ignoring Verdi’s demands for ppp although he displays a pleasing mezza voce in places. By his side Franco Vassallo as his secretary - here given his American name of ‘Renato’ rather than the Swedish ‘Anckarström’ - similarly pours forth a stream of beautiful tone without an enormous access of feeling. I note that he ducks the coloratura cadenza at the end of his opening aria altogether. He does however gives a sterling account of Eri tu (tr. 32),displaying an astonishing breath control that enables him to carry the line through phrases that are all too frequently broken by other singers.
 
As his wife, Chiara Tugi displays a good solid voice, a willingness to sing quietly when Verdi requests it, and a penetrating lower register. She sings all of Verdi’s cadenzas to the notes the composer requires, but her extreme top register above A sometimes acquires a vinegary edge that is quite distressing in Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa (track 23). Anna Maria Chiuri as Ulrica, is a real find, a resonant Verdian mezzo with plenty of top and bottom to her voice. She also shows a readiness to comply with Verdi’s dynamic instructions, and in the opening of her scene (tr. 11) her beautifully graduated crescendo to ff followed by a sudden pp shows that the composer as always knew exactly what he was doing. She is somewhat encumbered by her costume - which reminds one of a moulting porcupine - but still manages to convey the full drama simply acting with her face and expressive eyes.
 
Eun Yee You as Oscar the page is very much the usual piping soubrette we get in this role. The part really needs a slightly stronger singer if the balance is to be preserved in the quintet Il messagio entri (tr. 35). She is not helped by being costumed as a furry caterpillar on very high platform shoes in the final scene, any more than Pisapia and Tugi looking like something out of Royal Hunt of the Sun. As the two vengeful conspirators, Tuomas Pursio is slightly stronger voiced and more menacing than Metodie Bujor, but both are satisfactory. The chorus are excellent, and the orchestra responds well to Riccardo Chailly’s energetic direction. It makes a real difference having a top-flight band in these middle-period Verdi scores. Chailly doesn’t pull any dramatic punches with blistering attack in the violent chords which punctuate the music.
 
One surprising thing about this production is that it is clear that the performance was given without any intervals between the Acts. Chailly pauses for applause and then simply turns to the orchestra and continues. Quite apart from the deleterious effects on the theatre’s bar receipts, this cannot have been comfortable for the performers and Chailly looks understandably exhausted at the end. Nonetheless, and if you are not looking for an authentic period performance - whatever that may mean in the context of this opera - the drama and musical passion are plentiful here. As for the visual aspects, if sometimes bizarre they are never unattractive.
 
The current catalogue lists no fewer than ten alternative DVDs of Un ballo in maschera, so the potential purchaser is hardly short of choice. Comparisons with the Met version, with a stellar cast including Luciano Pavarotti, Aprile Millo and Leo Nucci, are instructive. The Met recording is unequivocally placed in Sweden, with concomitant changes made to the names throughout the sung text. Although none of the principals, even in 1991, were precisely in the first flush of youth, they convey an even greater sense of dramatic involvement in a more conventional production. Pavarotti, oozing bonhomie from every pore, scores by his scrupulous observations of Verdi’s dynamic markings - he didn’t always - which brings the phrases springing to a life that Pisapia cannot match in Leipzig.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

See also review of DVD release by Robert Farr  

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