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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Un Ballo in Maschera
Gustavus III – Plácido Domingo
Amelia – Katia Ricciarelli
Anckarström – Piero Capuccilli
Oscar – Reri Grist
Madame Arvidson – Elizabeth Bainbridge
Conspirators – Gwynne Howell & Paul Hudson
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Claudio Abbado
Otto Schenk (director)
Jürgen Rose (designer)
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 17 February 1975
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM 2.0 OPUS ARTE OA1236D DVD [138 mins]
They don’t make ‘em like this any more! This is something from deep in the Royal Opera House archives, a recording from the first run of their classic Otto Schenk production of Ballo. This is an opera that hasn’t been particularly lucky at Covent Garden recently. Their 2005 production wasn’t particularly popular and was only revived once (I thought it was OK, as I said in this review of the same production in Madrid). I didn’t see their most recent 2014 production, but it was pretty universally panned, so looking back on this Schenk production feels like an insight into another universe.
It’s ultra, ultra-traditional, with beautiful flats, lovely costumes and naturalistic sets. Ulrica’s cauldron comes complete with ghoulish lighting and dry ice, and the set for the ball scene draws wowed applause from the Covent Garden audience. Schenk opts for the Swedish setting, for all that it matters, and he conjures up the kind of show that Covent Garden just doesn’t do any more. Thus the target market seems to be the nostalgia brigade, and that’s reinforced by the fact that the three leads and the conductor were all in their youthful prime when this was filmed.
Abbado looks like he’s fresh out of school but he primes the orchestra to give of their best and he is a wizard with this score, as you can already hear in his DG recording with the same two principals. Plácido Domingo brings sunshine and verve to the part of Gustavus, with a perpetual smile in his voice, not just in the laughing ensemble that brings Ulrica’s scene to an end. He never sounded better than he did at this point, and his fans will want to see as well as hear him during this golden period for him. The same applies to Piero Cappuccilli, who sings the role of Renato with golden passion and honeyed vigour. His Eri tu is outstanding, a model of control and precision. Katia Ricciarelli was often criticised, both in her day and later, but you won’t hear her better than here. True, she is a little pressed at the end of her big Act 2 aria, but Morro, ma prima in grazia is meltingly moving, and she floats Consentimi, o Signore most beautifully. Elizabeth Bainbridge hams it up brilliantly as Ulrica (or should that be Madame Arvidson?), and Reri Grist is a real treat as Oscar, every bit as good as she is on CD for Muti.
The feelings of warmth for a bygone era might just help you to overcome the DVD’s technical imperfections. The picture quality is grainy and much too dark – parts of Act 2 are almost invisible – and the sound is very limited too: I couldn’t swear to it, but it sounds as though it’s in mono, despite the LPCM 2.0. Furthermore, it’s one of those strange broadcasts that has the English subtitles embedded into the picture so that you can’t switch them off, and it’s ever so slightly dishonest of Opus Arte not to make more of this on the case, barring a gentle allusion. However, the subtitles are very minimalist – often a whole aria gets just one line of subtitling at the beginning – and their compulsory nature didn’t bother me unduly.
So this is very much a niche Ballo, and only you will know if it will suit you. It’s in no way a top choice (the best DVD is from the Met, and the best CD is Solti’s with Pavarotti and Price), but I felt well disposed towards it nonetheless. When you can hear Domingo, Ricciarelli and Grist sounding clearer on CD, however, I’m not sure I’ll watch this again. Nostalgia can only take you so far.