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Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
Giuseppe Verdi, Georg Solti, Saint Cecilia Academy Orchestra
Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (18) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #2



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Grazia Decca! Bravo Bergonzi!
Wyoming | 04/21/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Thanks and praise to Decca for finally making this Ballo available on CD. Riccardo was one of Carlo Bergonzi's greatest roles -- right up there with Radames, Alfredo, Alvaro, Edgardo, and Nemorino. In addition to this Decca/Solti offering, which is Bergonzi's first commercial recording of Ballo, there is his second commercial recording a few years later for RCA with L. Price, Grist, Verrett, and Merrill under Leinsdorf. There are also pirate CDs of a live performance with Leyla Gencer, as well as pirate VHSs, now available on DVDs, of a fine live televised performance in Tokyo (with Stella and Zanasi, and Japanese subtitles). When Decca recently issued its Bergonzi "Sublime Voice" collection, most of Riccardo's role was included (but not the final masked ball scene with the Amelia-Riccardo duet and Riccardo's death-bed pardon of Renato). That release was welcome, but not enough for those who admire the whole Decca recording which until now was available only on our old LPs.

Comparing the present Decca issue with the RCA studio recording, Bergonzi's performance on both is outstanding, but the Decca is, to my ears, the more exciting of the two. As to the other participants and the two recordings taken as a whole, each has its merits and demerits, and any lover of this opera will be fortunate to own both. The Decca acoustic, as with other Decca recordings of the period (such as the Karajan Aida with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Simionato), favors the orchestra and occasionally comes close to drowning out the soloists at a climactic moment (but it's better than the aforementioned Aida in this respect). But all the words and all the music are there and are easily audible, especially if you know what you are listening for, and the quality of the sound -- both near and distant --is excellent. There is also some use of the patented Decca stage movement, which works well. With the soloists in full cry and not close-miked, the Decca comes much closer to simulating the ambience of a live performance than the RCA studio recording. And Solti's account of the orchestral score is exciting in a way that the Leinsdorf for RCA, though excellent, is not.

Birgit Nilsson may not be anyone's first choice for Amelia, and sometimes her loud high notes are so metallic as to be more suited to her Wagner and Strauss heroines than to Verdi. But I find her performance here taken as a whole to be enjoyable, dramatically expressive, in many places exciting, and sufficiently attuned to the Verdi style to be interesting and worth hearing and rehearing. L. Price on the RCA has her good moments, and she was a great Verdian, but she seems not to be in her best voice in many places on that recording.

As for Oscar, Sylvia Stahlman on Decca holds her own with the much more frequently recorded Grist on RCA. Stahlman is quite pleasant to listen to and acquits herself very well in the role, although her low notes are weak and her diction not quite up to Grist's standard. The Grist performance on the RCA is also excellent.

Ulrica is a somewhat ungrateful part which is not the best role in the great Simionato's repertoire (or that of other great Verdi mezzos), but she acquits herself honorably here, sometimes with better volume in the high parts than in the low parts (a bit surprising, in light of her justified fame as Amneris and Azucena, although I think part of the problem on this recording may be the Decca sonics). If mild criticism is justified, the fact remains that the role is well and idiomatically sung. Verrett on RCA is her usual full-toned force of nature, and she gives the kind of thrilling account of this role that one came to expect from her, whether she was Eboli, Dalilah, or Lady Macbeth.

MacNeil as Renato on Decca is fresh-voiced and deploys a beautiful instrument. But Merrill on RCA gives a more seasoned and, perhaps surprisingly to some, a more dramatically characterful account of the role.

John Culshaw recounts in his autobiography "Putting the Record Straight" the difficulties that arose in making this recording, including a sad account of his dealings with Jussi Bjorling, whom Bergonzi replaced on this project. Although Culshaw was "haunted" by the "ghost" of Bjorling "no matter how superbly Bergonzi sang" and appears to think that this recording is not one of Decca's most successful efforts, it has much to commend itself from my perspective. You can turn the volume up for most of the opera for optimal appreciation of the soloists, and you can turn it down in time to avoid being startled by the one or two orchestral climaxes that may fairly be characterized as blasting (including the final notes of the opera). The faults of this recording notwithstanding, the magnificence of the Bergonzi performance is a treasure, and the rest of the recording matches up pretty evenly with the RCA when the pluses and minuses of each are considered, and there are elements in each that could just as well lead someone to favor the Decca over the RCA as vice versa. But since we now have both, there is no need to prefer one over the other.

If Decca's tardiness in preparing and issuing this CD had to do with a perceived conflict with its Bartoletti/Pavarotti and/or its Solti/Pavarotti recordings of this opera (and I have no idea whether that was the case) -- or if it reflected an assumption that there would not be a sufficient market for this Solti/Bergonzi offering in view of the Pavarotti recordings (also entirely speculative) and the reductions over time in the ranks of Bergonzi fans, including those who, like myself, have heard him perform this and other roles at the MET -- those considerations would only make me more grateful. There is more than one good recording of most great operas. It will be interesting to see how the market responds to the current issue. I would guess that there are many people of all ages who cherish Bergonzi's extensive discography and who will be delighted to have this Ballo for the enjoyment it will hold for years to come. Perhaps this review will help encourage others to take advantage of the opportunity to experience the pleasures of this recording."
L. Mitnick | Chicago, Illinois United States | 05/22/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Deccca is to be congratulated and commended for finally reissuing this superb recording long absent from the catalogue. Georg Solti's way with the weightier Verdi operas is dramatic, compelling, and totally absorbing. He infuses the power of Wagner and Strauss into his orchestration, and it gives this opera an orchestral grandeur that is far less evident on other recordings. He's directing a cast who are themselves legendary. Carlo Bergonzi, the epitome of Italian lyricism, is heard here in his early vocal prime, and the dividends he pays are only slightly less than those paid by Bjoerling on the legendary 1940 Met performance. His voice flows like honey, and his phrasing is exemplary. Cornell MacNeil is captured here in his early prime as well - with a free and sonorous baritone that makes "Eri tu" one of the highlights of the performance. His Renato is appropriately menacing and anguished at the same time. Giulietta Simionato, a veteran Italian mezzo, who specialized in Verdi's mezzo roles, makes the most out of this brief but important role. Her top voice rings out dramatically in Ulrica's climaxes, though one would have liked equal power on those exciting "basement" notes that Verdi actually wrote for a true contralto, which Simionato was not (but then again, real contraltos are as scarce as original Mickey Mouse watches). Sylvia Stahlman was an excellent coloratura who should have had a greater career, as her Oscar here demonstrates. Her passage work is accurate, attractive, and limber. Her contribution to the trio in Act III is formidable. That leaves Birgit Nilsson, the mighty Isolde and Brunnhilde of her generation. Yes, she was a Wagnerian and Strauss soprano, but she was also an Aida, a Tosca, a Lady Macbeth, the most famous Turandot in history, and finally, an Amelia in "Ballo". Nilsson does not have the Italianate sound that we have become accustomed to in these roles, but her Nordic virtues are well known. She sang this role often in Sweden, and did very well by it. The role is very difficult, and is loaded with top B flats, B's, and a couple of high C's. These top notes are child's play for her. Her vocal power is something not to be believed, and her ascent to the climatic top C in the Act II aria is something which must be experienced rather than described. She and Bergonzi blend beautifully in the big duet in Act II and they both end it on a sustained high C (though it must be said that Nilsson's is five times the size of Bergonzi's, and she was probably STILL standing further from the microphone!). This recording is a real recorded achievement, and I don't think you've really experienced Verdi"s "Ballo" until you've heard the possibilities explored here. If I had to part with all my other "Ballo" recordings (and I have plenty of them!), this is most definitely the one I'd be clinging to. At the incredibly low price Amazon is charging for it, my advice is to grab it before it again becomes out of print."
Wow! It's like dying and going to Heaven!
Gregory E. Foster | Portland, ME, USA | 05/30/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"What to say....."AT LAST!"
Yes, at last! Finally, after all these years (I guess it took the passing of Ms Nilsson and many inquiries from me to Decca/Philips/Universal Classics, pleading for it), finally it is available for our hot little hands again.

I love this recording. Another of my "growing-up" opera recordings, so it's like seeing an old friend from my childhood again! Is this the best "un Ballo"...probably not, but it certainly ranks up there. I loved these old singers, and generally will always want the "old" recordings I knew to still be in my collection, even though they have been "surpassed" or replaced with newer efforts. In many cases today, I feel that studio recordings have been "juiced-up" technologically or electronically to sound better than they really are. The singers in these older recordings were doing all this on their own, with no "clean-up" or "beefing" as I call it, except for perhaps occasional phrases or notes being re-recorded and spliced in. This recording is one of my favorite recordings from the beginning of my operatic journey to today. It has been bested by Solti's newer effort in digital sound, etc, and by others, but know what...this will always be in place on my shelves, and I will go to it frequently to listen to Ms Nilsson's efforts, along with Bergonzi's, Macneil's, Simionato's, Solti's and the Accadamia de Saint Cecelia Orchestra of Rome. To Universal Classics I say "Brava" on the re-release of this grand old recording. ~operabruin"