Verdi: Un ballo in maschera

COMPOSERS: Verdi
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Un ballo in maschera
PERFORMER: Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Eugenia Ratti; La Scala Chorus & Orchestra/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 67918 2 ADD mono Reissue (1957)
None of these four live La Scala recordings is new – Callas aficionados may already have acquired them on other labels – but their first EMI appearances present them in the finest sound currently available. Anyone hoping for hi-fi will, however, be disappointed. Apart from stage and audience noise, the sound picture is often cloudy, with occasional blasting at climaxes.

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But their interest as performances certainly outweighs such deficiencies. As one of the greatest of all operatic performers, nothing that Callas did is without interest. Even her Amelia in Ballo, which lacks the essential vulnerability of the character, is commandingly sung, and she’s well supported by Bastianini’s refulgent Renato and Di Stefano’s grandly lyrical Riccardo. Giulietta Simionato is a magnificent Ulrica, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni’s conducting is spirited if occasionally hasty.

Maddalena in Andrea Chénier was not a favourite among Callas’s roles, and with Mario Del Monaco stealing – and indeed literally stopping – the show here, perhaps that’s understandable. But hers is a fascinatingly detailed reading, while the tenor (always better live than in the studio) is sensational. Aldo Protti is the solid Gérard and Antonino Votto’s conducting is never less than adequate.

Amina in La sonnambula shows all of Callas’s genius in character depiction and her unfailing musicality. She’s technically superb and consistently seeks out the emotional core of the role. Cesare Valletti is the charming Elvino, Eugenia Ratti a spitfire of a Lisa, while Giuseppe Modesti’s Rodolfo combines grandeur with sensitivity. Leonard Bernstein’s conducting is energising if a little knowing.

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Essential is the Medea, by the end of which you wonder how anyone can sing the title role at all, let alone with the terrifying passion Callas brings to it. It is one of her masterpieces. Her Jason (Gino Penno) may be dramatically weak, but the rest of the cast is generally excellent – notably Fedora Barbieri’s Neris, Modesti’s Creon and Maria Luisa Nache’s anxious Glauce. Bernstein conveys the Beethovenian power of Cherubini’s 1797 score, given with later (1855) recitatives by Franz Lachner and in an Italian translation.