Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

COMPOSERS: Verdi
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Verdi
WORKS: Un ballo in maschera
PERFORMER: Katia Ricciarelli, Judith Blegen, Bianca Berini, Luciano Pavarotti, Louis Quilico; Chorus & Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera/Giuseppe Patanè; dir. Elijah Moshinsky

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CATALOGUE NO: (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 4:3 picture format)
The New York Metropolitan was relatively slow to recognise Pavarotti, who made his debut there only in 1968; but for some 35 years thereafter he was probably its greatest star, and there he made many of his finest recordings. The Verdi and the Donizetti here were recorded in 1980 and 1981 respectively, when he was near the peak of his vocal abilities and while he still made real efforts to bring some dramatic credibility to his roles. Riccardo in Un ballo – rather than Gustavo, here, in the ‘original’ Boston setting – was for many one of his finest roles, not only musically but in his commanding, vulnerable portrayal of the flawed and tragic hero. This provides a valuable record and a highly enjoyable one, in Elijah Moshinsky’s clean-cut production based on John Singleton Copley’s colonial-era paintings. Pavarotti, in golden voice and intense presence, is well matched by Louis Quilico’s rich-voiced, mordant Renato and Katia Ricciarelli’s deeply felt if occasionally strained Amelia, not to mention Judith Blegen’s sparkling Oscar. Giuseppe Patanè’s conducting is lively enough, and with much improved sound and vision this is altogether more vivid than Pavarotti’s 1991 Metropolitan Opera remake. Equally, in Elisir the undervalued Blegen sings a much brighter and more likeable Adina than the uninvolved Kathleen Battle in 1992. Pavarotti is also in finer voice, once he warms up, and although he’s prone to scene‑stealing buffoonery he makes Nemorino more than a dimwitted oaf. Not so, Brent Ellis’s undersung and unfunny Belcore. Revered veteran Sesto Bruscantini, husbanding a drying voice, underplays Dulcamara, but there’s plenty of fun in Nicola Rescigno’s conducting. Unfortunately the production is geriatric and very broad, with embarrassing dance sequences, and the sound acceptable but not first-class. As in Ballo, the notorious Met audience applauds intrusively. The 1987 gala performance makes an interesting pendant, that earlier Met adoptee Joan Sutherland joining her old Covent Garden partner Pavarotti in Acts III from Traviata and Rigoletto, with scenes from Acts I and III of Lucia di Lammermoor. No particular drama here, with antique stagings and Richard Bonynge’s conducting altogether soft-centred. Sutherland isn’t remotely credible as the heroines, but then she never really was. Her voice is still there, though less steady, and her artistry fills out a lot of what’s missing. Pavarotti was also filling out by then, but he unleashes splendid tone in ‘Parigi, o cara’ and the desperate Lucia sequences. Sutherland remains elegant in Lucia’s Fountain scene, though without much electricity. What there is of that comes in Rigoletto, with Pavarotti’s charismatically nasty Duke and the young Ferruccio Furlanetto’s brutal Sparafucile; Leo Nucci is a solid jester and Isola Jones a striking Maddalena. But the chief attraction here is unquestionably nostalgia, the more so since Pavarotti’s death. A canary-fancier’s evening? At least it’s a memorable one. Michael Scott Rohan