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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera – opera in three acts (1859)
Gustavo III, King of Sweden (Riccardo) – Piotr Beczała (tenor)
Graf René Anckaström (Renato), King’s aide – Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Amelia, his wife – Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano)
Ulrica Arfvidsson, fortune teller – Nadia Krasteva (mezzo-soprano)
Oscar, page – Hila Fahima (soprano)
Graf Horn, enemy of the king – Alexandru Moisiuc (bass)
Graf Warting, enemy of the king – Sorin Coliban (bass-baritone)
Christian – Igor Onishchenko (baritone)
Judge/Servant – Thomas Ebenstein (tenor)
Orchester, Chor und Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Jesús López-Cobos
rec. Live April 2016 Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
No libretto provided
ORFEO C210062 [2 CDs: 135:03]

Popular in the recording studio, Un ballo in Maschera has over the years attracted many of the world’s most famous opera stars. The role of Gustavo (Riccardo) has been recorded by notable tenors Jussi Björling, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, likewise, the soprano role of Amelia by Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi and the baritone role of Anckaström (Renato) by Tito Gobbi, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes and Piero Cappuccilli.

The protracted history of the opera begins in 1857 with the commission to write an opera for Naples. Verdi came across Eugčne Scribe’s libretto for Daniel Auber’s French grand opera Gustave III ou le Bal masqué that had been premiered in 1833 at the Paris Opéra. Scribe’s libretto, although elaborated, is based on the true story involving King Gustavo III of Sweden who was shot in 1792 by the military officer Anckarström while attending a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm and died of his injuries a fortnight later.

Verdi engaged Antonio Somma to write an Italian version, based on Scribe’s libretto for Auber’s opera Gustave III. Publisher G. Schirmer’s opera libretto of Un ballo in Maschera expounds the notion that Somma’s Italian libretto is merely a translation of Scribe’s work. The libretto Somma was preparing for Verdi contained aspects that were politically unacceptable to censors in Naples and Rome, notably the regicide caused by a court conspiracy at court; there had also been an attempted assassination of Napoleon. Consequently, the libretto had to be substantially altered, which must have been exasperating for Verdi and his librettist. The opera was initially named Gustavo III and set in Stockholm towards the end of the eighteenth century; then it was renamed as Una vendetta in domino and set in Pomerania. Eventually it was changed to Un ballo in maschera and relocated to British colonial-era Boston near at end of the seventeenth century. There were several name changes to the roles, notably King Gustavo III of Sweden becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston, and Graf René Anckaström, Gustavo’s secretary, best friend and confidant renamed as Renato. Un ballo in maschera was premiered in this form at the Teatro Apollo, Rome in 1859.It was an instant success and remains so today.

Somma’s libretto centres on King Gustavo’s love for Amelia, the wife of his friend and aide Count René Anckaström. Disguise, mistaken identity, unrequited love, sorcery, a chilling prophecy, loyalty before passion and political conspiracy leading to murder are all merged into the plot. In 2016, I reported on the revival of Götz Friedrich’s Swedish version of at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Friedrich had brought the setting forward to modern times with an unadorned staging of reduced visual stimuli. Standing out as Gustavo, was Jorge de León; the role of Anckarström was taken by Etienne Dupuis and Judit Kutasi impressed as Ulrica. I can still picture the eerie midnight scene at the gallows outside the town, where, conquering her fears, Amelia has come alone to pick the herb that Ulrica has advised. A year later, I saw the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich. Stage director Johannes Erath had set the Boston staging in around the 1920s Art Deco period. Headed by Piotr Beczała in the role of Riccardo, the impressive cast featured George Petean as Renato with Anja Harteros as Amelia.

In recent years, productions have generally focused on the Swedish rather than the Boston staging, yet of my various recordings of the opera all are Boston settings with the exception of the 1989 Vienna studio recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Placido Domingo. The issue of whether it is set in Sweden or Boston does not troubles me in the slightest. I recall Malte Krasting, the dramatic advisor to Johannes Erath’s production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, acknowledging that the historical context has essentially no bearing on the opera.

The Wiener Staatsoper first staged Un ballo in Maschera in 1870, and the company has now clocked up five hundred performances. This 2016 live Vienna recording is based on the Swedish version of the opera with its regicide plot. The production is of course of no real concern in an audio recording, although this was a revival of his traditional 1986 staging and several photos of the lavish costumes can be seen in the booklet. One senses that vastly experienced Verdi conductor Jesús López Cobos is appreciative of working with a such a solid cast, especially with such talented singers in the principal roles.

Luciano Pavarotti described the role of King Gustavo (Riccardo) as ‘perhaps the most complete role for a tenor, a severe test, both vocally and dramatically’. Piotr Beczała, a tenor whom I follow closely, is certainly up to the job in this signature role. His Act One cavatina, La rivedrŕ nell'estasi as he reads the guest list for the evening’s masked ball and is overjoyed to see the name of his secret love Amelia, is strikingly sung. Performing as if he owns the role, Beczała is not just an outstanding singer he is a very fine actor too. He combines these gifts for this top-drawer display, journeying through the broad range of emotions that the role of Gustavo demands. He brings an impressive level of intensity to the role when needed and can produce a delightful sweetness too. This is a mature, assiduous and entirely engaged performance; he sings Italian roles so well although it’s not his first language. He may not have the largest voice, but he uses it astutely, and having such an adroit technique there is a security to his high notes, which are achieved with only little strain.

Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova shines in the role of Amelia, giving a quite delightful performance. Amelia is torn between her sense of marital duty and her love for King Gustavo. In Amelia’s much-loved aria from Act Three Morró, ma prima in grazia, she is threatened with death by her husband for her for her supposed adultery and pleads to see her son for a final time. It is a mainly introspective aria with solo cello accompaniment and Stoyanova dramatically depicts Amelia’s torment. Although it is hard not to think of great Amelias from past decades such as Leontyne Price, Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé, Stoyanova here gives a most effective performance with her dark timbre and generous voice. Striking, too, are her leaps to her high notes. A key moment of the opera is the Act Two love duet between Gustavo and Amelia O qual soave brivido. Sparks fly as Beczała and Stoyanova sing so convincingly, intensely expressing a mutual love entangled with so many obstacles.

This live performance was recorded while Dmitri Hvorostovsky was battling the brain cancer from which he died from eighteen months later. Here he sings a role he knows well. Although he does not have the glorious, dark tones of other notable singers in the role, notably Sherrill Milnes (Rome 1970, Decca), he is dramatically involved. His voice previously had more beauty of tone than it does here, yet he is still a fine performer. Standing out is his Act Three aria Eri tu as Anckaström determines it is not Amelia who deserves retribution, but Gustav. Hvorostovsky certainly knows how to stamp his own interpretation onto the role of Anckaström, creating a bitter and intimidating character.

When I saw Un ballo in Maschera in 2016 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I’ll never forget the scene when Judit Kutasi as soothsayer Ulrica created a chilling and formidable character with such persuasive resolve. Verdi conceived Ulrica as a contralto role and mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva sounds more comfortable with her higher notes than the challenge of reaching down into her lower register, but although there is some minor strain, it actually adds to the tension. Krasteva is an experienced Ulrica and performs the role well, displaying an earthy tone with a noticeable vibrato that I don’t find at all bothersome.

As Gustavo’s page Oscar, a breeches role for soprano, Hila Fahima, a fresh-sounding young soprano with a bright, slightly sweet tone, is a new name to me, and she shines in both her arias. In the smaller roles, Anckarström’s collaborators and enemies of King Gustavo, Horn and Warting are effectively sung by Alexandru Moisiuc and Sorin Coliban who make convincing conspirators. I love the 'laughing chorus' closing Act Two, as Horn, Warting and a group of conspirators make wicked fun of Anckaström, but here, the passage is much too subdued, compared to the impact of the 'laughing chorus' in Erich Leinsdorf’s 1966 recording.

The Vienna State Opera Orchestra is expertly conducted by Jesús López-Cobos and one senses his genuine affection for the score. I am delighted with López-Cobos’ choice of tempi, his sense of drama and the helpful way he leaves space for the soloists to receive applause. Drilled by chorus master Thomas Lang, the chorus displays a marked engagement and sings highly effectively.

Overall, my primary choice for Un ballo in Maschera remains the 1966 Rome recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf on RCA Victor. Leinsdorf’s cast has vocal excellence, featuring Carlo Bergonzi (Riccardo), Leontyne Price (Amelia), Robert Merrill (Renato), Shirley Verrett (Ulrica) and my 2009 RCA Red Seal re-issued CD has pleasing, remastered sound. Luciano Pavarotti in the role of Riccardo is an attraction and his 1970 Rome recording under Bruno Bartoletti benefits from a fine cast notably Renata Tebaldi (Amelia) Sherrill Milnes (Renato) and Regina Resnik (Ulrica). Antonino Votto in 1956 conducted a notable studio recording at La Scala, Milan. Votto’s starry cast is headed by Maria Callas in the role as Amelia together with Giuseppe Di Stefano (Riccardo), Tito Gobbi (Renato) and Fedora Barbieri (Ulrica). I have the Warner CD, a digital remastering undertaken in 2014, that has improved the sound quality of the recording. In addition, Oliviero De Fabritiis conducted an impressively sung live recording in 1961 at Bologna with Carlo Bergonzi (Riccardo), Leyla Gencer (Amelia), Mario Zanasi (Renato) and Adriana Lazzarini (Ulrica), but the drawback is the live recorded sound, which comes a very poor second to the splendid singing.

The sound quality of this live recording under López-Cobos is, overall, highly agreeable, yet bear in mind that the stage microphones cannot consistently pick up the voices evenly. As one might expect, there is some minor stage noise and the audience applause, of which there is plenty, has been left in. The Orfeo album contains a helpful booklet essay by Christian Springer and a synopsis, yet sadly, there is no libretto, which is maddening for a full price, double-CD set.

This outstanding album is, in my view, the finest new release of the opera since Herbert von Karajan’s 1989 recording also from the Wiener Staatsoper and I will keep it alongside my treasured recordings from Leinsdorf, Bartoletti and Votto.

Michael Cookson



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