Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

COMPOSERS: Verdi
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Verdi
WORKS: Un ballo in maschera
PERFORMER: Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci, Aprile Millo, Florence Quivar; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/James Levine; dir.Piero Faggioni (NewYork, 1991)
CATALOGUE NO: 073 029-9
How enterprising to raid the archives for pictures to accompany the sounds that we’re familiar with from the golden age of singing. Enterprising and sometimes disappointing, too. Who could resist Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli in Laforza del destinoi But even with remastering, this 1958 San Carlo production from Naples is not so much black-and-white as soot-and-whitewash, with sound that is swimming-pool boxy. Corelli is big and beefy as Alvaro, every inch the Italian tenor out for a big sing. But Tebaldi’s voice is oddly thin and as she semaphores her way through ‘Pace, pace mio dio’ you can see why her exact contemporary Maria Callas was such an acting sensation on stage. The problem with the Rigoletto from Parma in February 1987 is that you can scarcely see anything at all. True, there is a health warning on the slip-case about the low lighting level on a film that was only intended for the archives of the Teatro Regio. But does ‘the exceptional nature and high artistic quality of this production really justify its release on DVD? If you can’t see Leo Nucci’s Rigoletto sounding magnificent in ‘Para siamo’ and if Serra’s honey-toned Gilda sings in deepest darkness throughout ‘Caro nome’ you’ve been robbed. February is also the cruellest month in Parma, with an audience that could cough for Italy.

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The problem with Un ballo in maschera from the New York Met is that you can see too much. Piero Faggioni’s production is so crammed with detail that you almost forget to listen to good singing led by Luciano Pavarotti as Gustavo. When it’s time for the king’s breakfast to rise, Oscar commands an army of satin-clad pages bearing the royal coffee, while the masked ball itself is muddled by a trio of dancers who appear to be miming the love triangle between Gustavo and his best friends Renato and Amelia while all three are singing their hearts out. All of which is a pity because Florence Quivar as Ulrica is a blood-curdling sorceress who really knows how to make vocal magic.

Altogether more satisfying is Otello with del Monaco as the Moor. This television studio production from 1958, with Tullio Serafin in charge of the orchestra, has the singers miming to playback in a high-Renaissance Cyprus filled with long shadows and almost entirely shot in close-up. The drama is unrelenting, and almost unbearable, too, as del Monaco is transformed from a confident general-about-the-battlefield to a

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psychotic wreck. Despite less than high-fidelity sound, the final act is as intense as any on record or DVD, with Rosanna Carteri’s Desdemona innocent beauty personified and del Monaco letting his voice collapse into speech tones at the horror of what he has done. As he stretches out for that last kiss and the orchestra whispers the love duet from the beginning of the opera you are right there watching with Emilia and Cassio and the Venetian Envoy. The golden age heard and seen.