Having been disappointed with the Pavarotti/Solti recording of "Ballo" -- mainly because of problems with microphone placement -- it was interesting to go to this video of a Metropolitan Opera performance almost 10 years later (1991), with Pavarotti at 55, and to notice that the microphones at the Met caught the distinctive timbre and beauty of the voice better than Decca had done in their early digital recording. It's a solid, traditional production, a bit busy in the Ulrica scene, and rather cheesily stark in the scene by the gallows (the love duet scene), but the performers are committed, and, like the Sutherland/Kraus "Lucia," it works. Pavarotti, though too heavy to be very nimble, sounds in very good voice, and only in one or two places does it let him down a bit -- nothing to mar the overall performance, though. Interestingly, he plays Gustavo as a king who takes Ulrica's prophecy seriously, so that "E scherzo" is played as a deliberate attempt to make light of a serious matter and not as a carefree blowing-off of the situation. The love duet with Aprile Millo goes very well, except for a moment when Pavarotti can't produce the volume he wants, and Millo covers for him very nicely. Levine knows how to conduct the emotional arc of this scene in a way that escaped Solti. Millo is an absolutely reliable Amelia -- a good-sized handsome voice, more naturally fitted to the part than Margaret Price on the Decca recording, and sounding a bit gusty and loose in her very first scene (in Ulrica's cave), but fine thereafter, in both her solos and concerted pieces. Renato is Leo Nucci, trim as a whippet, with his well-focused but not very rich voice, who puts over the character splendidly. Florence Quivar's voice is almost too lovely for Ulrica's, but you can't complain about that. She's costumed as a kind of voodoo priestess, in the manner of Dr. John on some of his cajun album covers! Oscar is Harolyn Blackwell, singing well but a times a little edgily in a role that I always find a bit irritating, no matter who is singing it. The conspirators are solid too, and in general the camera work for video is apt. Most importantly, Levine knows how to shape and pace this stuff, and the orchestra sounds great.
When one listens to CDs as much as I do, I find it easy to forget just how involving a committed live performance can be. This is such a performance -- never mind that Pavarotti is getting old, or that Millo didn't have the distinctiveness of Leontyne Price, or that one would like a bit more richness from Nucci. They're alive in the moment, and it's exciting to hear.
Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, is based on the true story of the assassination of the King Gustav III of Sweden. In the opera, Gustav (Luciano Pavarotti) is in love with Amelia (Aprile Millo), who is married too his best friend and most trusted servant Renato (Leo Nucci). Gustav receives news that the government wishes to exile Ulrica (Florence Quivar), the famous fortune teller who speaks to Satan. A skeptical Gustav decides to see her disguised as a fisherman.
Ulrica tells him that he will soon be murdered by a close friend and when asked who this was she replied that it would be the first person to shake his hand. As Renato walks in, Gustav greets him and shakes his hand, proclaiming that Renato would never harm him and that the prophesy would not come true. Gustav thinks all will be well, but eventually the opera ends in tragedy.
Luciano Pavarotti is vocally excellent as the doomed king, his voice wonderful as always. Although his acting is a bit stiff, this does not spoil his performance, his amazing voice sounded phenomenal, hitting each note perfectly with great skill.
Gustav's page Oscar, was played wonderfully by Coloratura Soprano, Harolyn Blackwell. Her light voice was stunning, expertly skillful and accompanied by good acting, playfully mischievous. Leo Nucci was also brilliant, his deep baritone voice superb, playing the vengeful Renato terrifically, both in the acting and the singing, giving a great sinister performance.
Mezzo Soprano, Florence Quivar is equally marvelous as the devil worshiping psychic. Her incredible voice was warm rich and powerful, with great stage presence. She was very comfortable at the deeper end of her voice creating a brilliant effect. Her performance of the aria "Re dell'abisso, affrettati" was mesmerizing.
However, the best performance was given by Aprile Millo, whose voice radiated exceptional beauty. The exquisiteness of her voice was astounding, her rendition of the sublime aria "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" was very beautiful, the high notes incredibly delicate, her version emotional and passionate. Millo is excellent for Verdi, being able to sing very dramatic parts and then swiftly move into the more subtle arias.
Conducted by James Levine with the fantastic MET orchestra and chorus, which excellently brings Verdi's thunderous music too life. The production is faultless, with its outstanding singers and grand traditional set designs, this DVD comes highly recommend.
The role of Gustavus in Un Ballo in Maschera has long been one of Pavarotti's favourite and stalwart roles. His recording under Sir Georg Solti remains one of the glories of the CD catalogue. However in this live performance from the Met he does not quite maintain his high standards. Everything individually is present, the character, the vocal tone and range - but it does not quite come together. In this performance he is far out-shone by the heart-felt Amelia of Aprile Millo - playing to her "home crowd" and giving an intensely musical and dramatic performance. Her act 3 aria is the highlight of the performance. Nucci, once over a shaky start gives a strong Renato, Florence Quivar provides strong support as Ulrika. Levine leads the orchestra as one would expect - a slightly old-fashioned approach but with glorious sound, particularly from the strings, supporting his singers in exemplary fashion. The production is of the usual standards of a Met spectacular - predominantly in shades of blue and gold and richly costumed. Rarely I suspect has the final ball had quite as many guests (although why some would attend as topiary chess pieces was a little beyond me!). For a generally strong, traditional performance for repeated viewing this is ideal. For Pavarotti at his best in the role look to the decca recording. If you are looking for an unexpected approach (a la Bieto) this isn't the version for you.
If you were there on the evening, this will probably have come across as a very powerful performance. On DVD this strength becomes a serious weakness. Pavarotti sings very loud for a great deal of his role, and power alone is not enough to make his singing interesting, even with floods of strong tone and great intonation. His acting is rudimentary and crude. A great deal more light and shade both in the singing and the acting would have made his assumption of the role of Gustavo a great deal more interesting - being very loud and very accurate is not enough. Aprile Millo is wildly popular with the audience, and apart from her hammy acting and her constant and very weird hand movements (what IS she sculpting in space?) gives some pleasure, with a few beautifully controlled soft phrases and plenty of powerful all-stops-pulled-out singing. Nucci too eschews subtlety at every turn. Harolyn Blackwell sings well but irritates with gallons of over-acting, her eyes constantly popping out of her head with exaggerated enthusiasm. Florence Quivar breaks the mould, as her voice is curiously occluded and underpowered - maybe she had a cold. Levine unleashes enormous power in the pit, but too often to the detriment of light and shade, of subtlety. The traditional-style set is cumbersome, stuffy and turns the whole thing into a kind of pantomime spectacle. The direction is totally devoid of imagination, except for the triffids in the final scene.
Because everything is constantly so totally full-on, I found the opera tedious and exhausting, which it should not be. I would like to see and hear Un Ballo done with a lighter touch in all departments - this would perhaps also redeem the crudely melodramatic quality of Verdi's patchwork of clichés, which make this one of his less successful operas.