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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in maschera (Maskeradbalen) (1859)
Gustav III (Riccardo) – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Holberg (Renato) – Carl Johan Loa Falkman (baritone)
Amelia – Siv Wennberg (soprano)
Horn (Tom) – Jerker Arvidsson (bass)
Anckarström (Samuel) – Sten Wahlund (bass)
Otto (Oscar) – Ann-Christin Biel (soprano)
Ulrika Arfvidson (Ulrica) – Inger Blom (contralto)
Matts (Silvano) – Anders Bergström (baritone)
Biskopen (A Judge) – Kolbjørn Høiseth (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Stockholm Royal Opera/Eri Klas
The characters in the Boston version in brackets
Rec. live, 16 December 1985, Royal Opera House, Stockholm
The opera is sung in Swedish
Sung texts with English translations and the original Italian text enclosed
Siv Wennberg: A Great Primadonna, Vol. 6
STERLING CDA1802/03-2 [68:32 + 63:54]

The history of Un ballo in maschera’s coming into being – and also its life thereafter – is a chequered one. In early 1857 Verdi got a commission from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for a new opera and Verdi, to begin with, decided to dust off his sketches for Re Lear, based of course on Shakespeare’s King Lear. When this turned out to be impracticable he instead opted for another King, Sweden’s Gustav III, who was assassinated in 1792 by political opponents at a masked ball. The story had been presented on opera stages before by Auber, whose Gustave III, ou Le bal masque was premiered almost 25 years earlier with a libretto by Eugène Scribe. Verdi commissioned Antonio Somma to write a new libretto based on Scribe’s. The working title was Gustavo III and it was presented to the censors in Naples in the autumn of 1857. It was however turned down for the reason that the censors wouldn’t allow a king to be portrayed on the stage – and in particular not the murder of a king. To save the situation, Somma and Verdi changed some names, the King of Sweden became a Duke of Pomerania and the location was changed from Stockholm to Stettin. The new title of the opera was, Una vendetta in domino. These alterations made, Verdi continued his work and at the beginning of 1858 the composition work was finished and he began “working on the full score” as he wrote to San Carlo. He travelled to Naples to begin rehearsals but then came the next blow: three Italians tried to murder Napoleon III in Paris, and the censors demanded further changes of the libretto! Verdi was furious and broke the contract with San Carlo. This led to a legal fight, which however was resolved in the end. When Verdi was free, he turned to the Rome opera, but there were censors in Rome as well, and they demanded even further revisions. The action was moved from Europe to North America and Boston during the British colonial period and the main character the King of Sweden who turned Duke of Pomerania now turned Riccardo, Earl of Warwick. That settled the new title of the opera became Un ballo in maschera, and under this heading it could eventually be premiered at the Apollo Theatre in Rome on 17 February 1859. It was an instant success and has remained so ever since.

But below the surface there has still been dissatisfaction with the hybrid nature of the libretto and during the 20th century attempts to rehabilitate the original setting have been made. It started with a production in Copenhagen in 1935 and five years later the Metropolitan Opera in New York followed suit on 2 December 1940 with, symbolically, two Swedish singers in leading roles: Jussi Björling as Gustav III (though quite incongruously the Met had retained the Italian names; thus he was Riccardo in the cast list), and Kerstin Thorborg as Ulrica (the fortune-teller). It took quite some time before the Royal Opera in Stockholm converted, which happened in 1959 with Göran Gentele as director. For that production Erik Lindegren made a translation of the Italian original text which in places deviates substantially from the original; it is far more poetic than the original - he incorporates quotations from late 18th century Swedish poets and takes into consideration historical facts – the names of the historical persons are used – but the inauthentic love affair between the King and Amelia is still central, thank God, since Amelia’s two arias and, in particular, the great duet on the gallows hill find Verdi at his most inspired. Thank God, the quality of the sound is also very good. Incidentally, this was not a radio broadcast but an in-house recording by the Royal Opera. There is some added echo which isn’t unbecoming and the balance is excellent.

The performance is also excellent. Estonian conductor Eri Klas has a firm grip of the proceedings and never lets the drama slacken. It is a taut reading, rather swift and rhythmically alert. The sailor’s song in the first act is springy and vital and Gedda is in ebullient mood. Considering that he had turned 60 when the recording was made he is still in remarkably fresh voice. His hallmarks: style, taste, elegance and involvement are all the time in evidence and as the peerless linguist he always was, he relishes in the frequent French expressions that Gustav III loved to spice his conversation with. The lovely melody with the text Du som av skönhet och behagen (in Italian La rivedrà nell’estasi) (about a minute into CD 1 tr. 3) is exquisitely vocalised and he is by turns ardent and tender-hearted in the gallows hill scene (CD 1 tr. 21) – always a high-spot in this opera. Only once does he force his voice unduly, but otherwise this is as perfect a reading of the role one could wish – even though some listeners may miss the Italianate roundness of tone of, say, Carlo Bergonzi. The same objection might also be raised against Siv Wennberg’s Amelia. Like her compatriot Birgit Nilsson, she is the possessor of a grand hoch-dramatisch soprano voice, whose brilliant top-notes cut through the darkness of the gallows hill with the intensity of a welding-torch, exactly like Nilsson’s in the same scene on the Decca recording with Bergonzi. Nilsson was frequently criticised for a certain coldness in her Italian roles, a point of view I can understand but don’t share. I have, since it was first issued in the late 1960s, treasured her recording of Aida with Franco Corelli and later also her Tosca, again with Corelli. In both roles she has a full armoury of nuances, and the same goes for Siv Wennberg. In her opening aria of Act II, Ecco l’orrido campo ove s’accoppia (CD 1 tr. 20) she expresses all her anguish with deep involvement and is a worthy counterpart to Gedda’s King in the following duet. In her second aria, Morrò, ma prima in grazia (CD 2 tr. 5) she is heart-breaking in her appeal to her husband to be allowed to embrace her only son a last time before she dies. Whether her singing here is Italianate enough is up to the individual listener to decide. To me it is a reading to compare with the best.

When it comes to the third main character, Renato – Holberg in the Swedish version – his role is sung by the versatile Carl Johan Falkman, commonly known to the Swedish public as “Loa”, opera singer, pop singer, entertainer, actor. Here at the height of his powers he has an ideally rounded Italianate baritone with thrilling height. His two arias are highlights, in particular Eri tu (CD 2 tr. 8), sung with both dramatic power and beautiful tone. I’ve heard him in several Verdi roles, including Germont in La traviata and the title roles in Rigoletto and Falstaff. Inger Blom is a dark and intense Ulrica and Ann-Christin Biel a glittering Otto. Jerker Arvidsson and Sten Wahlund, longstanding pillars of strength in the bass department at the Royal Opera are properly menacing as the conspirators Horn and Anckarström, and Anders Bergström is a winning Matts, the seaman.

All in all this is a very attractive performance of Maskeradbalen, primarily aimed at Swedish speaking listeners, but with world stars Nicolai Gedda and Siv Wennberg in leading roles it should be of interest also to an international audience.

Göran Forsling

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