VERDI: Ballo in Maschera
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Great Opera Recordings
Un Ballo in Maschera
An opera in three acts to a libretto by Antonio Somma,
based on Scribes Gustave III, ou le bal masqué.
Riccardo Beniamino Gigli
Renato Gino Bechi
Amelia Maria Caniglia
Ulrica Fedora Barbieri
Oscar Elda Ribetti
Silvano Nicola Niccolini
Samuel Tancredi Pasero
Tom Ugo Novelli
Un Giudice Blando Giusti
Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera House
Conducted by Tullio Serafin
Recorded on 33 sides by Italian HMV, Opera House, Rome
30th June, 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th July 1943
Matrices: 2BA 5487/97, 5500/05, 5508/18, 5525/29
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball)
"In the end it all depends on a libretto. A libretto, a
libretto and the opera is made!"
Verdi (in a letter of 1865)
Verdis comment on the art of his librettists, quoted above, seems surprising in view of the difficulties encountered in 1858, when he and Somma were preparing the text for Un ballo in maschera. The story, based on historical fact, was clearly too sensitive for the authorities in Naples, where the operas première was originally to take place, culminating as it does with the assassination of a king by one of his courtiers. Even with the changes to the characters and plot that Verdi was prepared to make, negotiations foundered and the project was abandoned, at least as far as Naples was concerned. Fortunately, in Rome things fared better and after further amendments, such as re-setting the story in Boston, Massachusetts, production of the opera went ahead and it was performed to tremendous public acclaim.
So it has remained and, while the opera has never been as familiar in the worlds opera houses as, say,
Il trovatore or Aida, it displays the growing musical maturity of Verdis middle period; it has been a vehicle for great singers of each later generation, offering as it does some of his most winning melodies and several thrillingly grand scenes. The soloists on this recording, who assembled in Rome in 1943, find the great sweep of the tragic plot very much to their taste under the bâton of Maestro Tullio Serafin.
At the centre of their group is Gigli, surely the most popular Italian tenor of his era, whose affection for the rôle of Riccardo is evident. In conversational exchanges he shows an easy familiarity, even to the extent of occasional laxity over note values; but this is a small price to pay for his generosity of tone and the warmth that he brings to his solos, particularly the romance of the third act.
Maria Caniglia is a worthy partner for him. Of the recordings that they made together, it is in this Ballo in maschera that they are best matched - a unity perhaps stemming from their performances of the opera at La Scala in 1941. In the gallows scene Caniglia is amazingly vivid, her fear almost palpable; she may have not been a perfect vocalist, but she could generate terrific excitement in music such as this. She and Gigli propel the great love duet to its almost Wagnerian climax as few other singers on record have done, with noble support from Serafin and the orchestra.
Gino Bechi and Fedora Barbieri were younger than their colleagues (she only 23) at the time of the recording, but they both do full justice to their rôles. Bechi has a light, attractive vibrato, with a tendency to snarl in certain passages; but listen to Eri tu from the third act. He brings real power to this betrayal aria and to the revenge scene with Tom and Samuel that follows. Barbieri, in one of her earliest recordings, displays surprising maturity in the rôle of Ulrica, her rich dark mezzo already fully developed. It is difficult to imagine a group of soloists at that point in history who could have brought more commitment to this most colourful of operas.
We can also hear singers of an earlier generation in extracts from Un ballo in maschera on the additional tracks on CD 2. Most notable among these is Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940), a lighter tenor than Gigli, lacking the younger mans honeyed tones, but with an aristocratic elegance that is entirely right for Riccardo. Giannina Arangi-Lombardi (1891-1951) brings considerable tonal beauty to the rôle of Amelia but on record at least she was less able than Caniglia to suffuse it with the required passion; but these are valuable records of some of Italys finest Golden Age singers which have not enjoyed wide currency on CD and they add memorably to our experience of Verdis middle-period masterpiece.
Un ballo in maschera was first performed on 17th February 1859 at the Teatro Apollo, Rome.
Beniamino Gigli was born in Recanati, Italy in 1890 and in 1914 made his début in Rovigo (in La Gioconda). He soon sang throughout Italy and, from 1919, in South America; 1920 saw his phenomenal début (Faust in Mefistofele) at the Met, where he stayed for twelve seasons. First heard at Covent Garden in 1930 (Andrea Chénier), he returned both before and after the war, and sang in many European cities in opera and concert. At his best in Verdi and Puccini, his golden tone made him universally popular throughout the world. Gigli died in Rome in 1957.
Born in 1905, the Neapolitan soprano Maria Caniglia made her début aged twenty-five. She then sang regularly at La Scala (including Ballo in maschera in 1941), her final performances there being in 1951. Caniglia appeared at the Metropolitan in 1938/9 and at Covent Garden before the war and during the 1950 La Scala visit. She created rôles in contemporary operas, but was best heard in nineteenth century lyric/dramatic Italian repertory and verismo. Her recordings, including complete performances of Tosca, Aida and Don Carlos, show a rich, dramatic voice, occasionally imperfect in intonation but undeniably exciting. Caniglia died in 1979.
Gino Bechi was born in 1913 in Florence, where he also studied. His début in Empoli was as Germont; this led to appearances, and subsequent long careers, in Rome and at La Scala (where, after its post-war restoration, he sang Nabucco in 1946). He later appeared extensively in South America and in London during La Scalas 1950 visit. At best, Bechis incisive baritone was ideally suited to Verdi and verismo rôles, Rigoletto, Iago, Falstaff, Alfio and Gérard, but by 1950 much of its beauty had waned, though he continued to sing until 1961. He died in 1993
One of the twentieth centurys great dramatic mezzos, Fedora Barbieri was born in Trieste in 1920. After studying in Florence, she made her début there in 1940, and first sang in Rome the following year and at
La Scala in 1942. After the war she toured South America and established a long career at the Met from 1950, where she included Azucena and Mistress Quickly among her roles. As part of La Scalas ensemble, Barbieri sang at Covent Garden in 1950 and returned for Don Carlos in 1958. She continued singing well into the 1980s, principally playing Italian character parts.
Tullio Serafin was born near Venice in 1878 and trained in