About this Recording
8.110178-79 - VERDI: Ballo in Maschera (Un) (Gigli, Caniglia) (1943)
English 

Great Opera Recordings

Giuseppe

VERDI

Un Ballo in Maschera

An opera in three acts to a libretto by Antonio Somma,

based on Scribe’s Gustave III, ou le bal masqué.

Riccardo Beniamino Gigli

Renato Gino Bechi

Amelia Maria Caniglia

Ulrica Fedora Barbieri

Oscar Elda Ribetti

Silvano Nicola Niccolini

Samuel Tancredi Pasero

Tom Ugo Novelli

Un Giudice Blando Giusti

Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera House

Conducted by Tullio Serafin

Recorded on 33 sides by Italian HMV, Opera House, Rome

30th June, 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th July 1943

Matrices: 2BA 5487/97, 5500/05, 5508/18, 5525/29

Catalogue: DB9075/91

 

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)

Un Ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball)

"In the end it all depends on a libretto. A libretto, a

libretto and the opera is made!"

Verdi (in a letter of 1865)

Verdi’s comment on the art of his librettists, quoted above, seems surprising in view of the difficulties encountered in 1858, when he and Somma were preparing the text for Un ballo in maschera. The story, based on historical fact, was clearly too sensitive for the authorities in Naples, where the opera’s première was originally to take place, culminating as it does with the assassination of a king by one of his courtiers. Even with the changes to the characters and plot that Verdi was prepared to make, negotiations foundered and the project was abandoned, at least as far as Naples was concerned. Fortunately, in Rome things fared better and after further amendments, such as re-setting the story in Boston, Massachusetts, production of the opera went ahead and it was performed to tremendous public acclaim.

So it has remained and, while the opera has never been as familiar in the world’s opera houses as, say,

Il trovatore or Aida, it displays the growing musical maturity of Verdi’s middle period; it has been a vehicle for great singers of each later generation, offering as it does some of his most winning melodies and several thrillingly grand scenes. The soloists on this recording, who assembled in Rome in 1943, find the great sweep of the tragic plot very much to their taste under the bâton of Maestro Tullio Serafin.

At the centre of their group is Gigli, surely the most popular Italian tenor of his era, whose affection for the rôle of Riccardo is evident. In conversational exchanges he shows an easy familiarity, even to the extent of occasional laxity over note values; but this is a small price to pay for his generosity of tone and the warmth that he brings to his solos, particularly the romance of the third act.

Maria Caniglia is a worthy partner for him. Of the recordings that they made together, it is in this Ballo in maschera that they are best matched - a unity perhaps stemming from their performances of the opera at La Scala in 1941. In the gallows scene Caniglia is amazingly vivid, her fear almost palpable; she may have not been a perfect vocalist, but she could generate terrific excitement in music such as this. She and Gigli propel the great love duet to its almost Wagnerian climax as few other singers on record have done, with noble support from Serafin and the orchestra.

Gino Bechi and Fedora Barbieri were younger than their colleagues (she only 23) at the time of the recording, but they both do full justice to their rôles. Bechi has a light, attractive vibrato, with a tendency to ‘snarl’ in certain passages; but listen to Eri tu from the third act. He brings real power to this betrayal aria and to the revenge scene with Tom and Samuel that follows. Barbieri, in one of her earliest recordings, displays surprising maturity in the rôle of Ulrica, her rich dark mezzo already fully developed. It is difficult to imagine a group of soloists at that point in history who could have brought more commitment to this most colourful of operas.

We can also hear singers of an earlier generation in extracts from Un ballo in maschera on the additional tracks on CD 2. Most notable among these is Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940), a lighter tenor than Gigli, lacking the younger man’s honeyed tones, but with an aristocratic elegance that is entirely right for Riccardo. Giannina Arangi-Lombardi (1891-1951) brings considerable tonal beauty to the rôle of Amelia but on record at least she was less able than Caniglia to suffuse it with the required passion; but these are valuable records of some of Italy’s finest Golden Age singers which have not enjoyed wide currency on CD and they add memorably to our experience of Verdi’s middle-period masterpiece.

Un ballo in maschera was first performed on 17th February 1859 at the Teatro Apollo, Rome.

Beniamino Gigli was born in Recanati, Italy in 1890 and in 1914 made his début in Rovigo (in La Gioconda). He soon sang throughout Italy and, from 1919, in South America; 1920 saw his phenomenal début (Faust in Mefistofele) at the Met, where he stayed for twelve seasons. First heard at Covent Garden in 1930 (Andrea Chénier), he returned both before and after the war, and sang in many European cities in opera and concert. At his best in Verdi and Puccini, his golden tone made him universally popular throughout the world. Gigli died in Rome in 1957.

Born in 1905, the Neapolitan soprano Maria Caniglia made her début aged twenty-five. She then sang regularly at La Scala (including Ballo in maschera in 1941), her final performances there being in 1951. Caniglia appeared at the Metropolitan in 1938/9 and at Covent Garden before the war and during the 1950 La Scala visit. She created rôles in contemporary operas, but was best heard in nineteenth century lyric/dramatic Italian repertory and verismo. Her recordings, including complete performances of Tosca, Aida and Don Carlos, show a rich, dramatic voice, occasionally imperfect in intonation but undeniably exciting. Caniglia died in 1979.

 

Gino Bechi was born in 1913 in Florence, where he also studied. His début in Empoli was as Germont; this led to appearances, and subsequent long careers, in Rome and at La Scala (where, after its post-war restoration, he sang Nabucco in 1946). He later appeared extensively in South America and in London during La Scala’s 1950 visit. At best, Bechi’s incisive baritone was ideally suited to Verdi and verismo rôles, Rigoletto, Iago, Falstaff, Alfio and Gérard, but by 1950 much of its beauty had waned, though he continued to sing until 1961. He died in 1993

One of the twentieth century’s great dramatic mezzos, Fedora Barbieri was born in Trieste in 1920. After studying in Florence, she made her début there in 1940, and first sang in Rome the following year and at

La Scala in 1942. After the war she toured South America and established a long career at the Met from 1950, where she included Azucena and Mistress Quickly among her roles. As part of La Scala’s ensemble, Barbieri sang at Covent Garden in 1950 and returned for Don Carlos in 1958. She continued singing well into the 1980s, principally playing Italian character parts.

Tullio Serafin was born near Venice in 1878 and trained in Milan. He soon conducted throughout Italy and at Covent Garden in 1907; at La Scala from 1909 and the Met (where he worked for ten years) from 1924; after the war he forged special musical links in Chicago and Rome whilst maintaining a busy recording career. Serafin was an astute coach and numbered Ponselle and Callas among his protegées. He encompassed a wide-ranging repertory and was one of the most influential operatic conductors of the century; Serafin pursued his career into venerable old age and died in 1968.

Paul Campion

 

Synopsis

CD 1

1 The Prelude to the opera includes elements of the opening chorus that is to follow, a fugato associated with the conspirators and the theme of Riccardo’s first brief aria.

Act I

Scene 1

Introduction

2 The scene is a hall in the house of the Governor of Boston, Riccardo. It is morning and deputies, gentlemen, officers and others are in attendance, together with Samuel, Tom and their fellow-conspirators. The two groups are contrasted, the first expressing their loyalty and the second plotting against the Governor. Riccardo enters and greets his friends, soldiers and the delegates, whose petition he receives. The page Oscar shows him the list of guests to the ball to be held by the Governor and Riccardo at once notices the name of his beloved Amelia, the wife of his loyal secretary, the Creole Renato.

3 Riccardo sings of his delight at seeing Amelia again and hearing her voice, while Oscar and the loyal gentlemen and officers add their own comments and the conspirators plot their future action. He dismisses the assembled gathering and Oscar, as he goes out, meets Renato, who remarks to himself on Riccardo’s sadness, while the latter thinks of Amelia, Renato’s wife. Riccardo tells Renato that he has private anxieties, to which Renato answers that he knows all. Riccardo thinks Renato has discovered his secret passion for Amelia, but it is, in fact, the news of a plot against Riccardo that Renato brings. Riccardo is confident, however, of the people’s loyalty.

4 Renato stresses the importance of Riccardo’s safety to the country and its future. Oscar returns, ushering in the Chief Justice, who brings papers to be signed, condemning Ulrica, a black sorceress, to exile.

5 Oscar defends Ulrica for her foretelling of the future. The judge repeats his condemnation. Riccardo decides that he and his followers, in disguise, will visit the sorceress, a course of which Oscar approves but that Renato finds imprudent. He tells Oscar to find a fisherman’s costume, while the conspirators, who have gathered again, see a chance for their plots to come to fruition.

6 For Riccardo this is an opportunity for pleasure, while Renato continues to warn of the dangers threatening him. Riccardo, however, will try out the fortune-teller, supported by his followers, while the conspirators still murmur among themselves.

Scene 2

Invocation

7 The scene is Ulrica’s dwelling. There is a fire burning and a cauldron on a tripod. The people assembled there await in awe the words of the sorceress, who calls on the King of the Abyss as she pronounces her spells. Riccardo enters, dressed as a fisherman, pushing his way through the crowd, but seeing none of his followers there. The people push him back and he stands aside, laughing, while the scene grows darker.

8 Ulrica cries out, as the Devil appears to her, with the whole future in his hand, unable to hide anything from her. The people waiting are delighted, but she calls for silence.

9 Silvano, a sailor, breaks through the crowd, seeking his future: he has served the Governor and risked his life, but has had no promotion in fifteen years service. Ulrica promises him money and promotion, as Riccardo slips a paper he has signed into Silvano’s pocket. Silvano thanks Ulrica for her favourable prophecy and then finds his promotion papers in his pocket, to the enthusiastic amazement of the onlookers. There is a knock at a small, hidden side-door. Ulrica goes to open it and a servant enters, recognised by Riccardo as an emissary from Amelia. It seems she seeks a private meeting and Ulrica sends the crowd away, while Riccardo hides, to observe the scene.

10 Amelia enters in some agitation, replying to Ulrica’s question by telling her that she is tormented by a secret love and seeks peace. Riccardo is overjoyed at what he hears. Ulrica tells her of a magic herb to quench her secret passion, only to be gathered at night by the gallows. In spite of her horror, Amelia is willing to go alone to find the herb, although Riccardo is resolved to go with her.

11 Amelia prays that she may be cured of her love, comforted by Ulrica, while Riccardo is encouraged in his own love for her. Voices are heard outside, calling for Ulrica, who urges Amelia away, with Riccardo determined to follow.

12 Ulrica opens the main door and Samuel, Tom and their followers come in, with Oscar, gentlemen and officers dressed in different ways, and now joined by Riccardo. A group of knights calls on Ulrica to tell the future, while Riccardo secretly makes himself known to Oscar. He asks the witch about his own future and if his beloved is true to him, while he braves the dangers of the sea.

13 Riccardo gives Ulrica his hand, claiming the right to go first. She sees that he is a great man, born under the sign of Mars, but breaks off, unwilling to go on. Forced to continue, she tells him he will soon die, not on the field of battle but by the hand of a friend, so it is written. The onlookers are horrified.

14 Riccardo seeks to know whether this is a joke or madness. Ulrica turns to Tom and Samuel, who are not laughing at her prediction, which Riccardo rejects. He asks who is to kill him and is told that it will be the first now to take his hand, which he now offers to those by him, all of whom refuse to take it. At this moment Renato appears at the door, runs to Riccardo and takes his hand. The conspirators are relieved, Oscar accuses Ulrica of lying and Riccardo assures her that Renato is his closest friend. She recognises the Governor, who now pardons her and throws a purse to her. She praises his generosity, but warns him that there may be more than one traitor. Voices of people outside are heard, led by Silvano, praising Riccardo, and they now enter.

15 The people sing a martial hymn of patriotic fervour in praise of Riccardo, while the principal characters express their own views, Ulrica repeating her deadly prophecy, the conspirators frustrated for the moment.

Act II

16 The scene is a lonely field outside Boston, at the foot of a steep hill. To the left are two pillars, white in the moonlight. The music of the Prelude makes use of Amelia’s theme from the terzetto of the first act, in Ulrica’s hut. Amelia appears on the hill, then kneels and prays, before coming slowly down.

17 She is afraid, as she approaches the gallows, with the plant growing at its foot, fearful at every sound.

18 Once she has taken the magic herb, her love will go, and she steels herself to do what she must. Midnight sounds, bringing with it terrifying spectres, a head with glaring eyes rises from the ground, staring at her in anger. She falls to her knees, calling on the Lord for help.

19 Riccardo suddenly appears, telling her not to be afraid, but Amelia bids him leave her, which he refuses to do. She pleads for mercy, but he declares again his love, while she reminds him that she is the wife of his closest friend.

20 Riccardo continues to declare his love, seeking mercy from her. Amelia calls heaven to her aid and begs Riccardo to leave her, inducing her, at last, to admit her love for him, to his great delight.

21 He wants to hear her say the same words again, his love now the greater. Where Amelia had hoped to quench her own passion, it has now grown the greater. They declare again their love for one another.

22 The moon now shines more brightly, as they hear someone approaching. It is Renato, and Amelia at once lowers her veil in fear. He has come to warn Riccardo of the plotting of the conspirators. He gives Riccardo his cloak to escape his enemies who know he is with an unknown woman. Amelia secretly urges Riccardo to go, but he is unwilling to leave her. Eventually he asks Renato to escort Amelia, veiled and her identity unknown to him, back to the city. This Renato swears to do.

23 In agitation Amelia hears Riccardo’s enemies approaching and begs him to escape. Renato, looking towards the approaching conspirators, adds his urgent pleas to hers. Riccardo, faced by traitors, sees himself as a traitor to Renato. Eventually he hurries away.

24 Renato bids Amelia follow him, as Samuel, Tom and the conspirators draw near. They are challenged by Renato, disappointed to find Riccardo not there, but ready to unveil the woman standing there, as Amelia cries to heaven for help. Renato draws his sword to defend her, but Amelia drops her veil, to the astonishment of her husband and the others.

25 The conspirators find Renato’s apparent assignation with his own wife ridiculous, while Renato is angry at Riccardo’s betrayal of him and deeply distressed, as he has saved Riccardo, the man who has dishonoured his wife. He invites the conspirators to his house the next day. They disperse, their voices heard from a distance as they go their various ways. Renato tells Amelia to come with him, as his voice has for her the sound of death.

CD 2

Act III

Scene 1

1 The scene is a study in Renato’s house. On a mantelpiece to one side stand two bronze vases and opposite there is a bookcase. In the background there is a magnificent portrait of Riccardo and in the middle of the room a table. Renato, the door shut, lays his sword on the table. He cannot forgive Amelia, with death the only possible outcome. He tells her to be quiet and seek mercy from the Lord. She pleads innocence, but he tells her she must die. She admits that she loved Riccardo for a moment but never sullied Renato’s name. He is determined, however, that she must die. She begs him for one last favour.

2 Amelia begs to be allowed to see her child before she dies, killed by the boy’s father. Renato agrees to let her see her son, in darkness and silence hiding her dishonour and his shame. As she goes, he turns in anger to the portrait of Riccardo, the one on whom he should take revenge.

3 Renato accuses Riccardo of bringing dishonour on Amelia, betraying him and poisoning the world for him. He recalls his love for Amelia, in her beauty, now turned to hatred and death.

Conspiracy

4 Joined by the conspirators, Renato makes it clear that he knows their plans to murder Riccardo, showing them papers that reveal this. To their surprise, however, he agrees to join them, assuring them of his change of heart, in spite of their incredulity, and with them demanding vengeance. He asks them the favour of allowing him to be the assassin. They disagree, but Renato takes a vase from the mantelpiece and Samuel writes their names on pieces of paper, throwing them into the vase.

5 At this moment Amelia comes in, telling Renato that Oscar is there with an invitation from the Governor. Renato sees her presence as a good omen, as he draws her towards the table and tells her to take a paper from the vase. She is apprehensive, suspecting some violent result. Under Renato’s threatening gaze, she approaches the table, trembling, and draws out a paper, which her husband passes to Samuel. Renato asks whose name is on the paper, and Samuel sadly admits that it is Renato’s, to the latter’s delight. Amelia realises that there is a plan to murder Riccardo, as they join together, expressing their various thoughts. Oscar comes in, inviting Amelia to the ball that Riccardo is to hold that evening. Amelia refuses, but Renato, learning that a masked ball is planned, accepts for them both.

6 Oscar is enthusiastic about the entertainment to be offered, with lights and music, while Renato, aside, voices his own thoughts at this opportunity for revenge, echoed by Samuel and Tom, who see the coming success of their plot. Amelia, meanwhile, realises her own part in the planned murder, as the one who drew the paper from the vase, wishing that she could frustrate their designs, without betraying her husband. Oscar tells her that she will be the queen of the ball, but she thinks that rôle should be Ulrica’s. Renato, Samuel and Tom plan their costume for the ball and their password, death.

Scene 2

7 In his finely appointed study Riccardo is writing, regretting the heartbreak that honour and duty demand. He is writing an order for Renato to return to England, where he will go, together with his wife, without saying goodbye. As he is about to sign the order, he drops his pen, while the orchestra recalls his first aria of love. He takes up the pen and signs the document, musing on his sacrifice.

8 Even if he must lose her for ever, he will always remember Amelia in his heart, yet he feels a presentiment of death, as if this were the last hour of their love. Guests are arriving and he wishes to see her again and talk to her. Oscar comes in, bringing a message from an unknown woman. Riccardo reads the paper that Oscar has given him, telling him that an attempt will be made on his life at the ball, yet if he does not go, people will say that he is afraid. He tells Oscar to hurry to join the entertainment with him, while, alone for a moment, he looks forward to seeing Amelia once again.

Scene 3

The Masked Ball

9 The scene is a richly decorated ballroom, brightly lit. The orchestra introduces music for the dance, as the guests gather, the majority masked, some in dominos, others in gala dress, with their faces covered. Among the dancing couples are some young Creoles. There are black servants and everything breathes magnificence and gaiety. The company express their delight. They are joined by Samuel, Tom and the conspirators, dressed, as they had agreed, in blue cloaks and hoods, with red sashes. Renato, in the same costume, comes slowly forward. They exchange the password, death. Oscar approaches Renato, whom he has recognised, and promises to follow him everywhere. He tells Renato that the Governor is there.

10 Oscar refuses to tell Renato what costume Riccardo is wearing, teasing him. They are separated by dancing couples, after which Renato rejoins Oscar, pleading urgent business with Riccardo. Oscar finally tells him that the Governor is wearing a black cloak with a pink ribbon on his chest. The dancers return, separating them once more.

11 Riccardo comes forward, thoughtful, wearing a black cloak with a pink ribbon, followed by Amelia in a white domino. Trying to avoid his recognition, she asks him why he is there and tells him to escape, since death threatens him. Riccardo is not afraid, but she urges flight. He wants to learn her name, but she cannot reveal it. Why then, he asks, is she so concerned about his life? He recognises Amelia, who warns him as strongly as she can to make his escape. He has no care for his own life, however, since Amelia loves him. He tells her of his order for Renato’s return with her to England, bidding her a last farewell. Renato, unobserved by them, now leaps forward and stabs Riccardo, while Amelia cries out for help, as guards, officers and others rush in. They surround Renato, removing his mask, castigating him as a traitor. Riccardo, as he dies, calls on them to leave Renato.

12 He tells Renato that Amelia is innocent, swearing the truth of this, as he lies on his deathbed. He takes out the order for the departure of Renato and Amelia for England. Renato at once feels remorse, as Riccardo forgives him, dying, while those standing by praise his generosity in a night of horror.

 

Keith Anderson

 

Producer’s Note

The recording of Un Ballo in Maschera, heard here, was first released in Italy by La Voce Del Padrone during the Second World War but, owing to hostilities,was not issued in England until 1946. Sometime during the late 1940s, this recording was apparently also issued by Argentine Victor, but to my knowledge, no collector has ever seen a set of South American pressings.

For the present transfer, I have primarily used a set of surprisingly quiet English pressings. In the case of three sides, however, I opted to substitute Italian pressings, which yielded slightly cleaner sound than their English counterparts. The recorded sound is generally excellent with plenty of hall ambiance present. At the conclusion of a few sides, however, the microphones were switched off too quickly. In these instances, I have added just enough digital reverberation to cover the lack of decay. Another flaw in the recording is that the balance between the orchestra and singers often changes dramatically from side to side. Originally, these shifts in perspective would not have been so noticeable since each four-minute side had to be heard separately. I have attempted to address this problem by means of subtle alterations in equalisation and sound level.

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.

The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.


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