Notes and Editorial Reviews
Un ballo in maschera
Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond; Marian Anderson (
); Jan Peerce (
); Robert Merrill (
); Zinka Milanov (
); Roberta Peters (
); James McCracken (
); Charles Anthony (
); Giorgio Tozzi (
); Norman Scott (
); Calvin Marsh (
); Metropolitan Op Ch & O
SONY 88697 91002, mono (2 CDs: 124:46) Live: New York 12/10/1955
On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African-American singer to perform a starring role at the Metropolitan Opera. This recording, presumably of a matinee broadcast performance, allows us to savor this historic occasion in a performance taped 11 months later. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this performance. Among other criticisms, I have read that Anderson was well past her prime when she made her Met debut and that Mitropoulos was not always successful in the operas he conducted. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by much of what I heard.
Irving Kolodin in
The Metropolitan Opera
, a history of the company from 1883 to 1966, states that Anderson would have been a much better Ulrica had she made her debut 10 years previously. By 1955, he says, “she depended more on dignity of appearance and the intensity of her dramatic effort … to sustain her part on the high level of effort around her.” Her colleagues in January included Richard Tucker (Riccardo), Leonard Warren (Renato), and Roberta Peters (Oscar). Despite Kolodin’s reference to “hollow sound and uncertain pitch,” I find Anderson’s voice to be in better shape that such criticism led me to expect. While Anderson might not be anyone’s first choice for the role, her portrayal is surprisingly effective.
A couple of the debut principals had been succeeded by other singers at the time this performance was taped. Jan Peerce’s nasal tenor voice will not be to everyone’s taste (the present writer included), but he contributes a strong, well-sung performance and is obviously fully involved in the drama, which can also be said of the rest of the cast. Robert Merrill is his usual solid, steady self. Roberta Peters, although a little chirpy at times, was born to sign Oscar. Zinka Milanov needs a little time to warm up at each of her appearances, but she then sings well, at times offering lines of great beauty. Some well-known singers appear in minor roles: Giorgio Tozzi as Samuel and James McCracken as the Judge.
Dimitri Mitropoulos was not particularly known as an opera conductor, but here he conducts a well-paced performance faithful to the score but sensitive to the needs of the singers. The orchestra sounds very good; the chorus is adequate. The usual theatrical cuts of the time are taken; they amount to so few bars of music that I have always wondered why anyone bothered to take them.
The mono sound is a bit boxy, but the ear soon adjusts. The miking is very good, with the singers never becoming inaudible and almost never varying in volume because of microphone placement. As with any live performance, one must be prepared to ignore coughs and a too-vocal prompter. The audience feels compelled to greet each major artist with applause at first appearance (and sometimes the scenery as well), as well as showing its appreciation where you would expect it.
The CD booklet offers only a plot summary and a track list and timings, along with pictures of the principals in their roles. One would expect at least a brief essay on the historical significance of the recording.
This will not be anyone’s first choice for a recording of
. I prefer Callas, Barbieri, di Stefano, and Gobbi conducted by Votto (EMI), a mono studio recording made about the same time as this broadcast; and Price, Verrett, Bergonzi, and Merrill, conducted by Leinsdorf (Sony), in stereo and uncut. For the historically minded and for lovers of live recordings, this Metropolitan broadcast is worth consideration as a supplement.
FANFARE: Ron Salemi
Works on This Recording
Un ballo in maschera by Giuseppe Verdi
Jan Peerce (Tenor),
Zinka Milanov (Soprano),
Marian Anderson (Alto),
Roberta Peters (Soprano),
Robert Merrill (Baritone)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Written: 1859; Italy
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