About this Recording
8.111278-79 - VERDI: Ballo in Maschera (Un) (Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi) (1956)
English 

Great Opera Recordings
Giuseppe
Verdi (1813-1901): Un ballo in maschera

Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by Antonio Somma after Eugène Scribe's libretto Gustave III, ou Le bal masqué

Riccardo - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Renato - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
Amelia - Maria Callas (soprano)
Ulrica - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano)
Oscar - Eugenia Ratti (soprano)
Silvano - Enzo Giordano (baritone)
Samuel - Silvio Maionica (bass)
Tom - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
A Judge / A Servant of Amelia - Renato Ercolani (tenor)

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
(Norberto Mola, chorus master)
Antonino Votto, conductor

 

Un ballo in maschera is the fourteenth complete opera recording that Callas undertook for EMI [Columbia/Angel] in September 1956. Like Madama Butterfly it was made before she undertook it on stage and like Butterfly she appeared in it in only one season. But whereas critical opinion confirms that even in Chicago, following her first triumphant American appearances, her Butterfly had not been an unequivocal success, Amelia was; although she only sang it in five performances of Un ballo in maschera at the beginning of the 1957/8 season at La Scala, Milan. The conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni remembers '[how] she had this strange, burning, singular talent; she was always herself and yet always different in every rôle. A voice of more even quality could not have imparted the tension, or Amelia's desperation so effectively. Had she sought less wide a range, fewer colours then perhaps she might have achieved a more homogeneous sound, but she preferred richness of colour and play of lightness and shade in recreating the character.'

The recording is conducted dutifully by Antonino Votto and includes the Riccardo of Giuseppe di Stefano who is perfectly typecast, bringing much of the light touch and style appropriate to the rôle, and his voice is a beautiful instrument. Tito Gobbi's Renato is also a notable assumption, his adroit use of vocal colour in 'Eri tu' particularly baleful. In them we hear the best kind of Verdi singing half-a-century ago. Unfortunately Eugenia Ratti's Oscar shows us a less attractive side. She produces a typical steam-whistle like scream: she was one of the last of the so-called coloraturas whose voice was pinched so as to be able to hold on tightly - literally, in company with the big guns of the generation before Callas, such as Maria Caniglia (1905-1979), Gina Cigna (1898-2002) and Iva Pacetti (1898-1981).

Throughout the rôle Callas chooses an appropriate plangent vocal colour so characterizing Amelia. In the Act II aria 'Ecco l'orrido campo', her singing shows the kind of detail redolent of her best work: the perfection of the repeated triplets, her shaping and control, and her inimitable way with the cadenza. In this she goes beyond what is written in the score. She was altogether too modest when she told a critic: 'It is all there for anyone who cares to understand or wishes to know what I was about.' Well, the notes may be there, but her rhythmic elasticity and vitality, elegant and expressive phrasing, balancing and weighting of the musical line and subtle breaths, are all things that cannot be notated. In the last bars of this aria there is an ascent to top C accompanied by the orchestra fortissimo, which she manages surprisingly smoothly. When Verdi writes a top C in 'O patria mia' in Aida it is accompanied pianissimo, as we can hear in her recording, where the C does not soar so much as see-saw.

In the Oath Quartet, in Act III, at the end of a phrase 'ah! qual lampo balena', after a sustained high B flat, we note how dazzlingly accurate she is as she whips through a passage of triplets descending to low D and E flat - it would not be possible to imagine them sung more accurately. Later in the scene, when Oscar enters and sings a passage of brilliant music, 'Ah! Di che fulgor', inviting Amelia, Renato, Samuel and Tom to the masked ball, Verdi underlines the ironic effect by having Amelia echo Oscar's fioritura in the minor. Here, not surprisingly, Callas's echo is clearer than Ratti's original. One still sometimes finds Callas described as a singing actress, a demeaning expression; it is her greatness as a singer that makes her so exceptional. How else can one explain the continuing demand for her records and more than half-a-century has passed since they were made?

Eugenia Ratti (b.1933) made her début at Sestri Levante in 1954. The following year she joined the company at La Scala, Milan, as Lisa in Visconti's famous production of Bellini's Sonnambula in which Callas sang. Thereafter, through the rest of the 1950s, a typical soubrette, she progressed through rôles such as the Priestess in Aida, Oscar and Zerlina, and took part in the first performances at La Scala of Milhaud's David and Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. She made a visit to the Holland Festival in 1955 and appeared in 1959 at San Francisco and Dallas, where she deputised for Callas's Rosina in Zeffirelli's production of Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Possessing a big voice, although she used it somewhat coarsely, the Triestine Fedora Barbieri (1918-2003) was one of a number of front-ranking Italian mezzo-sopranos active in the 1950s and 1960s, including Ebe Stignani (1903-1974), Giulietta Simionato (b.1910), Elena Nicolai (1912-1993) and Fiorenza Cossotto (b.1935). In her home town she studied with Federico Bugamelli and Luigi Toffolo, and in Milan with Giulia Tess. In 1940 she made her début at the Comunale, Florence as Fidalma in Il matrimonio segreto, then in 1943 married the Director of the Florence May Festival. Although the war did interrupt her career, in those years she appeared in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, The Netherlands and Austria. No sooner was peace declared than her international progress was rapid: she first appeared at La Scala, Milan in 1946, and the following year she travelled to the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires; in 1950 to Covent Garden, London and the Metropolitan, New York, and also to San Francisco and Chicago. Her repertory in her palmy days included rôles such as Dalila, Azucena, Amneris and Eboli, which she sang under de Sabata and Giulini. She created Dariola in the première of Alfano's Don Giovanni di Manara at the May Festival in 1941 and in 1942 was Telemaco in Dallapiccola's revision of Monteverdi's Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria. In Siena that year she sang Giustina in Pergolesi's Flaminio, and in 1943 at Cremona, Orfeo in Vito Frazzi's edition of Monteverdi's opera. She undertook a number of rôles with Callas, including Brangania in Tristano, Adalgisa, Amneris, Neris in Medea and with her recorded as well as Amneris, Laura in La Gioconda, Azucena and Ulrica.

Giuseppe Di Stefano, born in 1921 near Catania, Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the last century. He began singing light music then, following a brief period of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto, made his opera début in 1946 as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which his rise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala, Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at the Metropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. At first his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Alfredo in La traviata and Faust, but it did not take long before he began undertaking heavier rôles, such as Cavaradossi, Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida, Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza del destino. Sadly the great years of his career were soon over, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voice than nature had put in, he made his last appearance at La Scala. From 1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias, and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas, Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore, Rodolfo, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera and Des Grieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

The career of Tito Gobbi (1913-1984), born at Bassano di Grappa in the Veneto, lasted more than forty years. His was a first-class Italian baritone with a characteristic timbre in the Titta Ruffo style. He made his début in 1935 at Gubbio singing a bass rôle, Rodolfo in La sonnambula, but this was a one off, and by the next year at La Scala, he became a baritone. Within a few years his repertory embraced Germont in La traviata, Silvio in Pagliacci, Lescaut, Marcello in La Bohème, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Ford in Falstaff, De Siriex in Fedora, Baldassare in Cilea's L'Arlesiana and Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, and he also sang Melot in Wagner's Tristano (Tristan und Isolde) and Gunther in Il crepuscolo degli dei (Götterdämmerung), Jochanaan in Strauss's Salome and Wozzeck, as well as a sizeable repertory of then modern operas. His international career began after World War II at leading theatres throughout the opera world, undertaking many of what were then famous impersonations, including Rigoletto, Posa, Iago, Renato, Macbeth, Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra, Rance in La fanciulla del west, Scarpia, Falstaff and Michele in Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, both of which he sang on more than one occasion the same evening. In earlier music, as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia or Don Giovanni, he appeared in Salzburg under Furtwängler in 1950. Although his stage presence was imposing, his recordings reveal his singing was not stylish. Over the years inevitably his voice became less responsive and in the upper range not infrequently he sang flat. As more than twenty films he made show, he was a good-looking man with considerable histrionic skill. His recording career lasted from 1942 and his first 78s for HMV, to LP sets for EMI, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Scarpia, Amonasro, Rigoletto, Renato and Figaro, with Callas, and Falstaff under Karajan, to 1978, when for Decca, he sang Chim-Fen in Leoni's L'oracolo.

Born at Piacenza, Antonino Votto (1896-1985) was a student at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella, Naples. Following army service in World War I, in 1919 he commenced his career, as a pianist giving recitals there and in Rome. The same year he began teaching the piano in Trieste, where he also made his début as a conductor. In 1921 Ettore Panizza engaged him to conduct at the Colón, Buenos Aires. Back in Europe again in 1923 he joined the company at La Scala, Milan, conducting Manon Lescaut; thereafter he acted as Toscanini's assistant until 1929. Throughout the 1930s he appeared at Covent Garden and elsewhere in Europe as well as still giving occasional piano recitals in Italy. After World War II he began to conduct regularly at La Scala, Milan. A typical routinier he was both unexceptionable and unexceptional. His complete recordings made for EMI, Cetra and DGG include Gioconda, La Bohème, Un ballo in maschera, La sonnambula and La traviata.

Michael Scott
Author of Maria Meneghini Callas

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Synopsis

[CD 1 / Track 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

[1/2] 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.

[1/3] 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.

[1/4] 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.

[1/5] 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.

[1/6] Renato stresses the importance of Riccardo's safety to the country and its future.

[1/7] Oscar returns, ushering in the Chief Justice, who brings papers to be signed, condemning Ulrica, a black sorceress, to exile.

[1/8] 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.

[1/9] 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

[1/10] 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.

[1/11] She calls on the King of the Abyss as she pronounces her spells.

[1/12] 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. 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.

[1/13] 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.

[1/14] 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.

[1/15] 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.

[1/16] 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.

[1/17] 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.

[1/18] He asks the witch about his own future and if his beloved is true to him, while he braves the dangers of the sea.

[1/19] 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.

[1/20] 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.

[1/21] 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.

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

[1/22] 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.

[1/23] She is afraid, as she approaches the gallows, with the plant growing at its foot, fearful at every sound.

[1/24] 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.

[1/25] 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.

[1/26] Riccardo continues to declare his love, seeking mercy from her. Amelia calls heaven to her aid and begs Riccardo to leave her.

[1/27] He induces her, at last, to admit her love for him, to his great delight. 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.

[2/1] 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.

[2/2] Eventually he asks Renato to escort Amelia, veiled and her identity unknown to him, back to the city. This Renato swears to do.

[2/3] 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.

[2/4] 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.

[2/5] 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.

Act III

Scene 1

[2/6] 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.

[2/7] 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.

[2/8] As she goes, he turns in anger to the portrait of Riccardo, the one on whom he should take revenge.

[2/9] 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

[2/10] 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.

[2/11] Together with them Renato demands vengeance.

[2/12] 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. 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.

[2/13] 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.

[2/14] 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.

[2/15] 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

[2/16] 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.

[2/17] 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.

[2/18] 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

[2/19] 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.

[2/20] 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.

[2/21] The dancers return, separating them once more.

[2/22] 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.

[2/23] 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.

[2/24] 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

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Producer's Note

A few dropouts, noticeable edits and distortion in loud passages are inherent in the original master tapes, and are not a function of the LP sources used for the present transfer.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Recorded 4-9 September 1956 in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
First released on Columbia 33CX 1472 through 1474

 


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