A brief reminder, to begin with, of the chequered history of
Un ballo in maschera. Antonio Somma wrote the libretto, based on a play by Eugène Scribe, entitled
Gustave III (1833). This, in its turn, was based on some historical facts concerning the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. The background was a political conspiracy but Scribe embroidered proceedings with a love story between the king and Amelia. Censorship in Italy in the late 1850s would not accept the portrayal of a king being murdered on the opera stage and the story had to be reworked. This happened, not once but twice and it all ended up in the transportation of the action from Stockholm to Boston during colonial times. The king becameRead more the British governor. In that shape it was premiered in Rome on 17 February 1859 and was an immediate success. It rapidly spread to New York and London and has ever since been regarded as one of Verdi’s best operas.
When the delicate political situation of the mid-19
th century was but a memory, directors wanted to restore the original story. Copenhagen in 1935 was first and the Metropolitan Opera in NY was not far behind in the early 1940s, when Jussi Björling was Gustavus III. He had sung the role in Stockholm a few years ago but then he was Riccardo. In Gothenburg, Sweden, a reconstruction of the first reworking, entitled
Una vendetta, was seen in 2002 (also recorded).
Behind the present production was Herbert von Karajan’s wish to mount the Swedish
Ballo at the Salzburg Festival in 1989. He had already recorded the opera on CD with his contracted cast but when stage rehearsals in Salzburg had already begun he died on 16 July. Who was there to replace a Maestro who had been almost synonymous with the Festival for more than thirty years? There was only a week to go before the premiere. The other great Maestro of the time, Georg Solti, turned out to be free and stood in for his rival with excellent results. He had conducted the opera since the late 1950s. He had also made two recordings of it, the first intended to star Jussi Björling as Riccardo. At the recording sessions in Rome in the summer of 1960 fate stepped in with a controversy between Solti and Björling and the sessions were cancelled. Two months later Björling was dead and Carlo Bergonzi took over the tenor lead. He was no doubt the best equipped and best suited to step into Björling’s shoes but it is sad not to have a studio recording with the Swedish tenor, still at the height of his powers.
There were six performances of
Un ballo in maschera in 1989. The following year there were another six and then it was filmed by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation.
We are indeed lucky to have this excellent cast in this lavish production. Visually it is very traditional – no quirky ideas and innovations; just a truly beautiful and magnificent staging. Have a look at the cover picture above to see what I mean. Sir Georg was 78 at the time but as intense as ever in the dramatic moments – and there are many. He was also able to relax in a way he rarely did until the last few years of his career. All in all there could be no better foundation for a thrilling performance. The Vienna Philharmonic, who had known Solti since the 1950s, played like gods and the male voices of the Staatsopernchor were as ominous as any other opera chorus I have heard.
In the centre of the proceedings Placido Domingo is noble and dignified. He sings better than in any of his three complete audio recordings, finding more nuances than ever – and the golden tone has lost none of its bloom. He sings the testing
Di tu se fedele with ardour and elegance and the great duet with Amelia matches even the recording with Bergonzi and Leontyne Price for Leinsdorf. Domingo’s Amelia is Josephine Barstow, who for me was the disappointment on the Karajan recording. There I found her over-vibrant and shrill. A superb actor she was deeply involved and here she combines this quality with glorious singing. Her second aria is one of the highlights of this performance.
Leo Nucci has always been a dependable but not always very sonorous singer. He is serviceable here rather than excellent, rather dry-toned but he is a good actor and he has some fine moments of lyrical restraint in
Eri tu. Florence Quivar is a magnificent Ulrica. She has a voice reminiscent of that of Shirley Verrett - a great Ulrica on the Leinsdorf recording. The diminutive Sumi Jo is a brilliant Oscar and Kurt Rydl and Goran Simic make the most of the conspirators Horn and Ribbing: Tom and Samuel in the Boston version.
Brian Large – how many such productions has he made? – never misses a point and lets the viewers savour the luxurious sets. I have seen some interesting ‘modern’ productions lately – thought-provoking and fascinating no doubt – but Schlesinger and William Dudley have here come up with something timeless and all-embracing. It’s hard to resist. Readers with non-traditionalist leanings should look elsewhere, but to everybody else, who needs
Un ballo in maschera, I can enthusiastically say: Here it is!
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
Ballo enthusiasts might remember that there is a CD version of this opera with the very same cast, conducted not by Solti but by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 449 588-2). It was recorded in Vienna in early 1989. Karajan was to have conducted the opera at the Salzburg Festival later that June, but he died less than two weeks before the first performance, and Solti quickly filled in. The present DVD dates from the following year, when the production was repeated, and when the opening night was telecast through the joint efforts of Austrian Broadcasting (ORF) and NHK Tokyo.
Here is another Ballo that has been moved back to Sweden—not just because that was Verdi’s original concept, but probably also because a Swedish king justifies more pomp and glitter than a governor from colonial Massachusetts. The fairly traditional production is by John Schlesinger, and Gottfried Kraus’s booklet note beats its breast about how “opera in this style, which was already regarded by more progressive observers as conventional and old-fashioned, would fall victim to the changes due to take place in Salzburg in 1992.” Schlesinger has divided Gustav’s court into fops and military types, and the latter are darn sore that the former seem to be capturing the bulk of the king’s attention. The idea of masks is harmlessly introduced right in the very first scene (which, for some reason, takes place in the library). Ulrica appears to be blind, and Gustav is shot, not stabbed—both contradictions of Somma’s libretto. With a rotating stage, the transition between the last two scenes is spectacular; we recognize the set design in the final scene from tabletop models seen earlier in the opera. (No doubt Gustav is a patron of the arts.) One persistent problem for stage directors occurs during Amelia’s act II aria on the “orrido campo” (which looks a bit like a bombed-out natatorium here): what to do about the ghostly head—“una testa di sotterra si leva”—rising out of the ground? Schlesinger turns it into a human skull attached to the root of the herb that Amelia has just plucked. I broke out into laughter—surely not the reaction Schlesinger (or Verdi) wanted.
Minor dramatic glitches aside, this is an enjoyable and musically distinguished Ballo. Once again, Domingo is fantastic; sad that so many took him for granted during the peak of his career. He brings charisma, heroism, and tenderness to the role as required, and most impressive to me was his finely nuanced singing at lesser dynamic levels, where many of his contemporaries have been content simply to pour it on. Barstow has an odd voice that feels hollow at its core. Beautiful it’s not, at least not in the conventional sense, but she uses it intelligently, and there’s no doubting that this is an Amelia who is suffering the greatest anguish over her untenable position. As her husband, Nucci is less vivid than the other two principals; although “Eri tu” is nicely sung, it is not the elemental outpouring of rage and regret one really needs in this role. Quivar is a likeable Ulrica rather than a frightening one, and the diminutive Jo is a convincingly boyish Oscar who sparkles—albeit somewhat coolly—in her solos. Solti’s conducting is a bit heavy, as if he were paying his own tribute to the late Karajan. The video format is full screen (4:3) and the sound is LPCM stereo—occasionally cavernous and recessed, but serviceable. There is no bonus material.
The other Ballo on DVD familiar to me is the Met’s, also Swedish, and recorded live in 1991 with Luciano Pavarotti as Gustav, Aprile Millo as Amelia, Harolyn Blackwell as Oscar, and Nucci and Quivar repeating their roles (Deutsche Grammophon 440 073 029-9). I reviewed it in 26:4. I found the production chilly (when not overly cutesy), with Pavarotti providing the only real warmth. For that reason, I’m going to give the present Salzburg release an edge over the Met’s.
-- Raymond Tuttle, FANFARE
Gustavo III – Plácido Domingo
Ulrica – Florence Quivar
Horn – Kurt Rydl
Il conte Anckarstöm (Renato) – Leo Nucci
Oscar – Sumi Jo
Ribbing – Goran Simic
Un servo d’Amelia – Adolf Tomaschek
Amelia – Josephine Barstow
Cristiano – Jean-Luc Chaignaud
Un giudice – Wolfgang Witte
Vienna State Opera Chorus
(chorus master: Helmuth Froschauer)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor
John Schlesinger, stage director
William Dudley, set designer
Luciana Arrighi, costume designer
Helmut Reichmann, lighting designer
Eleanor Fazan, choreographer
Recorded live from the Salzburg Festival, 1990.
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese
Running time: 145 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9) Read less
Works on This Recording
Un ballo in mascheraby Giuseppe Verdi Performer:
Florence Quivar (Mezzo Soprano),
Placido Domingo (Tenor),
Josephine Barstow (Soprano),
Leo Nucci (Baritone),
Sumi Jo (Soprano),
Kurt Rydl (Bass),
Wolfgang Witte (Tenor)
Sir Georg Solti
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1859; Italy Date of Recording: 28 July 1990