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Un Ballo in Maschera [DVD]
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VAI has the archival tape of a video performance that has been around in pirated form for at least thirty years. Though the picture is still not pristine, it's clearer than ever, colors count for something, the setting is clear, and faces (and details of costumes) come through better than ever. The sound is also a significant improvement, well balanced mono with a sense of these big voices resonating in a large space. The production is typical of its time, it's not 'realistic' and though the stage manner is stand and sing, no one is without personality, and the singers interact to good effect.
Bergonzi sounds like a God, his voice is gorgeous as a sound, his handling of the range is easy with strong high notes, and a most wonderful dynamic range, and the words really count. He has charm, woos Amelia (in act two)with dignified ardor (shaping his lines in the duet like a great cellist) and has pathos both in the big act three aria (a glorious sustained piece of singing) and in the final scene. I have to disagree with the other reviewer, as the last ten Met seasons have shown (and as broadcasts from elsewhere indicate) there is no one like Stella today. She has a voice of wonderful color, it's immense and she has no fear. She isn't as refined or thoughtful as Bergonzi and she does some belting especially at the top, but it's exciting, of the right scale and full of color. Danieli (Ulrica) was actually a great singer who didn't make an international career. She's past her best here, but the ripe lower octave is wonderful, and so is her impersonation -- sure it's broad and counts on eye aerobics (Bergonzi gives as good as he gets), but it's wonderful (and she handles the top with skill if no great ease). Zanasi would be a star today -- a baritone of fine color and size, and a strong interpretor along traditional lines. The two bases (Clabassi and Zerbini) are well above average for these roles, by any standard. And The Oscar is an engaging performer with a sweet voice.
The orchestra is good and well prepared; De Fabritiis, an old hand, has a sure control of things, but gives his singers the leeway that was once typical.
The DVD ends with an interview with Stella (at 78), as was true with Scotto on the VAI Lucia, Stella is full of stories and personality and still looks good (by opera standards she was a sexy lady). VAI's presentation (surtitles et al) is excellent.
There will be those who will want stereo and up to date video technology -- but they won't find Ballo. THIS is Ballo!
In my July 7, 2007 review of the VAI release of the 1967 Tokyo Lucia di Lammermoor with Scotto and Bergonzi, I expressed the hope that it would not be long before VAI gives us a similar restoration of the 1967 telecast from Tokyo of Un Ballo in Maschera with Bergonzi and Stella. That the latter issue is now available such a short time thereafter shows that VAI knows where the most spectacular NHK treasures are buried, and did not need me to remind them of this one. The (mono) sound on this issue is vastly superior to that on any of the pirate editions of this performance, and the video is also much better as well, allowing one to see the facial expressions, etc., with much greater clarity. Despite the outdated production values, the stock gestures, a sometimes audible albeit ignorable prompter, the sometimes risible posturings of the Ulrica (but who ever liked the dramatic values of this role anyway?), the occasionally visible throat clearings and saliva swallowings, and whatever other criticisms might be made of this performance, the total impact intended by Verdi is as well served here as in any of the more modern productions on video, and much of the singing is unequaled by anything one could find elsewhere. This is my desert island video Ballo, and any other lover of this opera probably would regard the possible criticisms I mention as little more than nitpicking. Bergonzi is magnificent in one of his best roles, and here he does more acting, and fully appropriate and effective acting at that, than in some other settings. The emphasis, however, is voice, voice, voice -- and expressive italianate voice -- on his part as well as all of the other principals. Bergonzi clearly loves this music and his role which, among other things, calls for a wide range of vocal colors which he delivers with no hint of falseness or insecurity. Stella is very good but not magnificent -- even so, it would be hard to find a verdian soprano with her intensity today, and it would be impossible to find another Bergonzi -- even Pavarotti did not quite match up in my view although this was also one of his favorite roles. Oscar is excellent and Zanasi makes a strong impression as Renato (the setting is the Swedish one although I am using the Italian version of the characters' names), and the conspirators are fine as well. Even Ulrica is at least adequate, and how many times was this ungrateful role performed on stage by a Verrett, a Bumbry, or a Cossotto? The English (and other) subtitles are a plus that was not previously available, and the Italian diction is authentic and in most cases pellucid. Another treasure from the not so distant past!
Gustavo: Carlo Bergonzi
Amelia: Antonietta Stella
Renato: Mario Zanasi
Oscar: Margherita Guglielmi
Ulrica: Lucia Danieli
Cristiano: Mario Frasca
Samuel: Plinio Clabassi
Tom: Antonio Zerbini
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus
Oliviero de Fabriitis, September 1967
NHK and VAI continue to put out their priceless live performances. Most of them capture an artistry and a tradition that has long faded away.
There's no director, set designer, costumer, lighting director listed. You will not see, a la Calixto Beito, a row of gentlemen sitting on porcelain goddesses. There's no micro-scholarly essay on how Verdi or this opera should be "interpreted." It's all done exclusively by singing and the singers, and the conductor, aiding and abetting them.
I have perhaps used the word "organic" far too many times in my summations of performances such as this. But I can't think of any other word that is so apt and apropos to describe the work of this cast. When you have these native Italian singers, who have lived, breathed, slept, dreamt the expressions of their language, who understand the Verdian idiom, the way they channel the blood, heart and soul so instinctively through their music making, how would a regieproduktion possibly further their, shall we say, highest-met goals of fulfilling the drama of this score?
I can only make a half-hearted stab as to why this performance feels so completely right on the money. You may, as I did, watch and listen with wonder, perhaps catch your breath at certain places, maybe even emit an occasional small gasp, at the sheer comeliness of the singing and musicianship.
Take Bergonzi, for instance. In stupendous form, miraculous really. He has never been more spontaneous in his tenor-revelry than here. Insouciantly confident, he gilds Verdi's lines as if he were in heaven, and therefore, we are. The hallmark quality of his phrasing must be heard to be believed. His sense of rubati, aided by the ever-alert and instinctive de Fabriitis, seems exactly right. His keen feel of rhythm and spot-on tuning, when to "crown," to slow down, to quicken, how to accent - is a textbook in itself, but I hasten to add, it's anything *but* of a paint-by-numbers factor. Even his personal touches sound natural. Why, for example do his laughs (a long-controversial argument amongst opera tattlers) in "E schrerzo od e follia" sound so natural and perfectly integrated, whereas when Domingo does them, they sound so self-consciously tacked-on? Maybe it's because the less cerebral (notice I do NOT mean less intelligent!) Bergonzi lives in the music? All of his breaths in time with the rhythms, the ways the words just flip off the tongue, the non-evidence of "technique (meaning the art concealed art aspect)" - Bergonzi really was the Verdi King. All through "Ma se m'e forza perderti" the hair on the back of my neck rose, my eyes reacting. I could elaborate on and on, but it'd require finding new sets of adjectives (and guilty already here of their number - my fatal case of AA - Adjective Abuse).
Just as satisfying is Antonietta Stella, in one of her few rare captured visual performances. It was always (annoyingly) held that Stella was in the second-tier in the Tebaldi-Callas reign at the time. Worse; "Stella would be a gigantic star today." Bull. She was a big star in her time, just not as well-publicized nor EMI'ed or Decca'ed like the other two. Stella was her own person, with her own sound, on her own terms. Today she'd be Italian soprano Number One. As Amelia, she trumps Callas and Tebaldi in two ways: far more consistently steady in tone and integrated of voice than the former, and with the freer top register than the latter. And in comparing her to other Amelias: more Italianate than Nlisson, Price, Margaret Price, Martina Arroyo (though I love her performance), more substantial than Ricciarelli. Let's not get into Crider at all. So it adds up that Stella is, confirmed, one of the best Amelias to be had. You could personally argue for your own needs that Callas may be more memorable to you, or Tebaldi closer to your heart, but they're not better.
I have always found Stella's warm, gilded-tone, soft-grained voice a pleasure. I have just about everything she recorded, and find pleasure in just about everything she's done. Her recording of "Ave Maria" from OTELLO is my top favorite; it is gorgeous, golden-voiced and deeply felt; her exquisite portamenti is an object lesson in phrasing (Ms. Gheorghiu: take note). Ever since Callas cursed Serafin and Stella for "taking away" "her" Traviata on EMI, the recording has been branded the traviata-that-doesn't-have-Callas-so-it's-worthless. It's one of my favorite accounts of the role. Then there is her Tosca, also led by Serafin, very femininely beautiful - and ~~~ her much maligned Linda di Chamounix, the very first commercial of it. She sings it charmingly.
Here as Amelia, she is in resplendent voice. Like Bergonzi, she has an unerring sense of the role's pacing and demands. Stella dives into the difficult big act 2 scena fearlessly; and she acts it out vividly, with grand as well as subtle gestures. Some of these make look broad, but we're getting the camera's vantage point, not the theater's. She passes the test in the aria's "Mezzanotte" section to the end with admirable poise, resolutely undefeated. You could point out a phrase or two being broken up, and the occasional, slight muscling-out of a top note, but in general, there is - thank heavens! - so little to complain about and so much much more to laud: her (stunning) power in the ensemble numbers, the give-and-take with Bergonzi an Zanasi, the involvement in the drama. "Morro, ma prima in grazia" is beautifully, poignantly delivered - and that cello intro never more fitting as a lead-in. Most importantly, the give-all, wanting-to-please sincerity of manner is very captivating. Physically, Stella is a looker, and she moves freely, completely at ease in the period costumes. It is a triumphant assumption, not likely to be bettered for awhile.
There's really not a truly weak link in the cast. Mario Zanasi, singing Renato, scores a thunderous ovation after a particularly anguished (in expressiveness), intensely acted "Eri tu." An exceptionally handsome, trim presence, Zanasi matches the two leads in being compelling, involved and attentive to the drama. "Eri tu" is not Merrill-smooth, but it does resonate very strongly, and we get Renato's pain. Zanasi manages, unlike many baritones, to put across the character way beyond the typically-wronged stock moves. Zanasi actually recalls Leo Nucci (but with a better voice) in his skills as an actor.
Lucia Danieli, as Ulrica, is a little cautious in her singing, but actually manages a creditable "Re dell'abisso" without sounding comical; the voice is at least integrated, and takes care to phrase with some sense of musicality.
Margherita Guglielmi is a thoroughly ingratiating, charming Oscar. Though light voiced (and trill-less), she does have a glint to the tone that carries well (and she can be heard riding over the ensemble in "E scherzo od e follia" - one of Verdi's most brlliant), and she skips nimbly around the stage.
And how often do we get a Samuel and Tom as strong as Plinio Clabassi and Antonio Zerbini?
As a bonus? We get a 25 minute interview with Stella, looking just dynamite at 78, clear-minded, charming, and her words on her experiences in opera are simply fascinating. Not at all drenched in melancholia, she is vibrant, and seems to be serene in her place in operatic history. It is so refreshing to see someone like her still thriving and apparently content with her place in operatic history. Moreover, she's modest yet has satisfaction in all she's done, not at all bitter or condemning; yet she reveals what she feels is a lack of preparation in today's singers. She does not hit this point hard though, and gives an example of how she spent an entire month with Serafin prior to recording traviata with him. It makes sense - preparation is everything (thus spake me).
This Ballo is the top choice of all of them on video - and given the rewards of seeing it - may be the top, or close to the top choice, period. It really doesn't get much better than this. This is Verdi and Italian opera, defined. This is the way it should be.
Do yourself a favor and buy this - support VAI so we can keep getting stuff outta them. No Verdian or lover of great singing should be without this.
You can't go wrong with this wonderful record of a sterling night of opera in Tokyo. If you don't know the singers of time gone by, buy this DVD and be jealous of those who saw these folks live. I know I am.