Notes and Editorial Reviews
Un ballo in maschera
Arturo Toscanini, cond; Herva Nelli (
); Virginia Haskins (
); Claramae Turner (
); Jan Peerce (
); Robert Merrill (
); Nicola Moscona (
); Norman Scott (
); Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC SO
OPUS KURA 7064/65, mono (2 CDs: 121:04) Live: New York 1/17 & 24/1954
About 15 years ago, when RCA Victor was still owned by BMG, they initiated a wonderful series of 2-CD reissues of Toscanini recordings including all of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, quite a few other symphonies and orchestral showpieces, and ending with his 1950 broadcast performance of Verdi’s
I suppose they thought that the
was the one unique and indispensable opera performance from his NBC years, but I beg to differ. Although the
sounds as if it’s laughing along with the comedy, the
(with the sole exception of Cloe Elmo as Dame Quickly) do not. From a vocal standpoint, it is mostly well sung (excepting the simply awful Fenton) but about as humorous as an audit of your finances by your bookkeeper.
This performance, on the other hand, is an absolute gem from start to finish, in my view equally as great as his 1947
or the dress rehearsal (not the broadcast performance) of the 1946
Here, Toscanini not only manages to maintain the humorous sparkle of the music when called for, but does so within perfectly moderate tempos; moreover, he actually gets his Oscar (Haskins) to sing with a “smile in the voice” and, even more surprising, he gets Jan Peerce to give what may be the greatest recorded performance of his life. Peerce sounds totally involved from start to finish, his nervous laughter in “E scherzo od e follia” is wonderful, and I’ve never heard anyone—not even Jon Vickers—sing “Ma se m’e forza perderti” with half as much fervor and dramatic intensity.
But is this a performance for the ages? Claramae Turner, who sings a splendid Ulrica, is not quite as good as Fedora Barbieri or Christa Ludwig, but that is a small complaint. More to the point is the extremely well sung and characterized Amelia of Herva Nelli, a soprano who Met stalwarts of the 1940s and 50s love to bash. They are more than a little incensed that Toscanini apparently snubbed their favorite Verdi soprano of the time, Zinka Milanov, in favor of Nelli for his broadcasts of
In fact, their nickname for her is “Helluva Nervi.” Now, I can’t and won’t speak for her singing in the years following Toscanini’s retirement, but I can tell you this: during her years at NBC, Nelli sang for the most part magnificently. In fact, what the Milanov fans often don’t like about her singing is that it’s clean and follows the score: there are no soft high notes dragged out to epic proportions, no scoops or droops for “expression,” but rather a well-focused and surprisingly young-sounding soprano voice with spinto power (and if you think her spinto power was faked by the NBC microphones, I suggest that you listen to her live 1948 La Scala performance as Margherita in Boito’s
the last staged opera that Toscanini conducted—actually a double bill with scenes from the same composer’s
). A friend of mine, now deceased, who had been a professional singer himself, put it best: “Nelli wasn’t so much an opera singer as a vocal artist. She sang with tremendous artistry, interpreted almost like a Lieder singer, and the opera fanatics can’t stand that.” So there!
That being said, my favorite Amelia on records (or anywhere else) is not Nelli but Maria Caniglia, on the old 1943 EMI recording, and Tullio Serafin conducts very well on that performance too, but the overall performance is marred by the broken-up phrasing and continual use of chuckle-sobs by Beniamino Gigli, a tenor who seemed to think that every opera performance he gave was his own personal vaudeville show. Thus, when you put it all together, this is by far the best
on records. (I might add that Merrill, too, gave one of the greatest performances of his career as Renato in this performance, despite the fact that it was the first time he had ever sung the role.) When the performance was given, music critic Virgil Thomson complained that the wall of orchestral sound that separated the audience from the solo singers drowned the latter out, but as it ensued Toscanini could actually hear them loud and clear from the podium, as could the NBC microphones. The end result was that the issued recording sounded just fine, as it does here.
OK, on to the present transfer. It is, like the Pristine Classical issue of a few years ago, taken from an original LP pressing of the opera, in this case an HMV copy. I feel this is important for this reason: when the recording came out (either in 1956 or 57) the master tapes were still fresh and did not have several decades’ worth of wear or erosion to deal with. The resultant sound was thus crisp and clear—certainly, it is much clearer than the 1992 RCA Gold Seal pressing of the old “Toscanini Edition” (Vol. 59, 60301-2-RG). In fact, quite a few of those Gold Seal reissues tended to sound just a bit gray and muddy, not nearly as crisp and clear as they should have been (though there were exceptions, such as the act II of Gluck’s
Harold in Italy,
the Dvo?ák Ninth, and a few others). One thing that stood out like a sort thumb in the Gold Seal reissue was the very obvious change of sound quality in the cabaletta to Riccardo’s act III aria, which was re-recorded in June 1954 (along with a couple of inserts for the
) in what was Toscanini’s very last recording session. Here, the sound quality blends in much, much better.
Opus Kura has at least done some light clean-up of the original source, removing much of the vinyl “swoosh” sound as well as surface ticks and pops (although there is one very short, light swish sound in the quiet six seconds following act I, scene 1). The result is simply marvelous. Unlike the
or even the
didn’t have nearly as boxy sound quality, so there is some natural reverb around the singers’ voices as well as the orchestra.
For those who have had trouble accepting Toscanini’s fast-paced interpretations of
this performance may come as a bit of a surprise. Where Toscanini does sound faster—although he is not—are in the ends of phrases, such as Oscar’s little solo line in “E scherzo od è follia.” He allows Haskins to extend the time in her high notes with a bit of rubato, but as she descends the scale and the music leads back into the tenor’s line, there is no rubato at all, but rather it is sung and played in very strict tempo. The same is true in “Teco io sto,” where Toscanini’s tempo is perhaps just a hair faster than Serafin’s in 1943, but the way in which he drives the strings—particularly in that passage under the tenor’s line “O qual soave brivido,” where the strings produce a “biting” sound—his refusal to slacken the tempo even a hair makes for hair-raising (pun intended) intensity. (Although I liked Georg Solti’s recording of the opera, he made absolutely nothing of this scene…in fact, the strings are so receded that you can barely hear the “biting” sound.)
My lone complaint was the short playing time of CD 1, which is only 47:47. I really think that Opus Kura could have put some of act II on the first CD, then filled out the second with some other Verdi excerpts conducted by Toscanini that are seldom heard: the wonderful trio from
with Della Chiesa, Peerce, and Moscona, “Pace, pace mio Dio” from
La forza del destino
sung by Gertrude Ribla (an outstanding soprano who made few recordings and deserves to be remembered), and his wonderfully taut performance of “O don fatale” from
sung by Nan Merriman in what was her very first broadcast performance with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. This would have made the release a better bargain and possibly attracted buyers away from the Pristine Classical pressing which, like this one, has no fillers (and no libretto).
Two funny misprints on the CD insert: one, everywhere you look, Robert Merrill’s last name is spelled with only one L; and the second half of the duet “Teco io sto” is suddenly attributed to Radamès and Aida. Who knew that Verdi was so prescient when he composed
that he was already thinking ahead 15 years? Alas, I believe this is the only recording of this opera that contains a duet by Aida and Radamès.
In any case, if you don’t have the Pristine edition of this opera I can recommend this one just as highly. It’s certainly one of the real gems in Opus Kura’s ongoing series of historic reissues.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Un ballo in maschera by Giuseppe Verdi
Herva Nelli (Soprano),
George Cehanovsky (Baritone),
Nicola Moscona (Bass),
Virginia Haskins (Soprano),
John Carmen Rossi (Tenor),
Jan Peerce (Tenor),
Norman Scott (Bass),
Claramae Turner (Mezzo Soprano),
Robert Merrill (Baritone)
Robert Shaw Chorale,
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1859; Italy
Date of Recording: 01/1954
Venue: Live Carnegie Hall, New York City
Length: 121 Minutes 44 Secs.
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