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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Votto’s 1956 mono recording, with voices set close but with a fair amount of space round them, is among the best of the sets with Callas from La Scala, and the CD focuses its qualities the more sharply. Cast from strength, with all the principals—notably Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano—on top form, this is indispensable for Callas’s admirers.

However, Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer for Naxos immaculately preserves the recording with plenty of bloom on the voices, and there seems no reason to prefer the EMI set which is still at full price, especially when the Naxos documentation is excellent.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, August 2008

Each of these classic Callas sets from the mid 1950s has been issued by EMI many times. Now that, in Europe at least, EMI's licensing rights have expired and they have fallen into public domain, Naxos has issued them for sale in Europe (but, obviously, available on the Internet for anyone in the United States, thus pointing out the futility of current copyright laws). There are two important aspects of these issues. One is Naxos's low price. The second is the transfer work of Mark Obert-Thorn.

I have compared these extensively with a variety of EMI CD releases—and with original LP releases as well. ...What all of this demonstrates is that the single most important technical component in reissuing old recordings is a good ear! There is a fullness, richness, to the sound here that EMI has missed in virtually all of its attempts. These transfers seem a bit brighter. ...There is no question in my mind, there is a presence and immediacy to the sound on these Naxos issues that simply is lacking in the EMI CDs. (The one sacrifice you'll make is the omission of a libretto.)

Naxos also had to leave out the scene that opens the fourth act of Forza. ...But in its place, Naxos has given us the complete 53-minute RCA highlight album of Forza issued in the mid 1950s by RCA, but compiled from a number of sources between 1950 and 1955. Featuring Milanov, Peerce, Warren, and Moscona, it is yet another reminder of the glory days of Verdi singing that were the 1950s. . .Listening to these three recordings over the past month has been an unalloyed pleasure.

Callas is of course the central reason for these reissues, the one common thread to all three. In 1954-56 she was still in her vocal prime. . .The other singers also represented, for the most part, operatic greatness. I had forgotten just how beautiful Di Stefano's Riccardo was—I've been bathing in his glorious sound. I'm not going to go into details here, because these recordings have stayed in the marketplace for a half century and are very well known to collectors. If you don't know them, now is the time. If you do, the Naxos reissues are worth investing in. If you have an EMI release, you can replace it and keep the libretto. It is recordings like these for which the record industry exists. . .Each of these three recordings stands alongside the best ever made of these operas, and each belongs in any serious opera collection.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, March 2008

Recorded exactly a month after Columbia’s Il trovatore, conducted by Karajan and, in the main, with the same principals, this Ballo also finds Callas in uncommonly good voice. The recording is what we have come to expect from La Scala of this vintage, clear but not very atmospheric, the La Scala acoustics being fairly dry. After Karajan’s alert conducting of Trovatore, one would have thought that Antonino Votto might stand out as reliable and rather routine. In fact he is better than his reputation. The prelude is well-shaped – perhaps a bit laid-back – and the opening chorus is rendered dark and ominous, laying bare the major conflict of the drama. Likewise he handles the stormy prelude to act 2 with the poignancy it needs. Both Amelia’s aria and the ensuing duet with Riccardo are really ignited by the conductor. So by and large Votto provides a fine canvas as backdrop before which this taut masterpiece is to unfold.

The La Scala Chorus and Orchestra – the chorus trained by legendary Norberto Mola – are prime forces and the line-up of comprimario singers boasts names like the reliable basses Silvio Maionica and Nicola Zaccaria as the leading conspirators. Michael Scott’s description in the liner-notes of Eugenia Ratti’s voice as ‘a typical steam-whistle like scream’ is to my mind rather unfair. It is no doubt a bright voice but I hear it rather as silvery and spirited – in other words what I expect from an Oscar. Fedora Barbieri is also rather unflatteringly described in the notes, but while she wasn’t quite in the Simionato or Cossotto class she was a true mezzo-soprano in the old Italian school and she is a strong and expressive Ulrica in the sinister scene in her dwelling.

Tito Gobbi, always responsive to words, the dramatic situation and the state of mind of his characters, makes the most of Renato, even though the first act aria Alla vita che t’arride is a bit bloodless. At least partly the conductor is to blame for not giving more positive support – Leinsdorf and Solti in their 1960s recordings are much more vivid. As usual Gobbi also has his moments of pinched tone. But in the first scene of act 3 he really shows his mettle. His wrath and despair at Amelia’s and Riccardo’s deceit is exposed in horrifying terms and when he pours his contempt on Riccardo in the aria, words initially almost fails him. Eri tu (It was you) he whisper towards Riccardo’s portrait, and then the wrath grows. Then, when he sings O dolcezze perdute! (O bliss that I have lost!) his tone and expression becomes so loving. The whole aria is a horrifying zooming-in on the soul of a person whose whole world has been broken into splinters. This is one of the great assumptions on record!

Callas on top form never misses an opportunity to wring the last drop of intensity out of her two arias and the act 2 scene by the gallows is a masterpiece of visual singing. Her colouring of the phrases is so expressive that we instinctively know what she looks like. As a contrast the resigned Morrò, ma prima in grazia in act 3 is eternally moving.

The duet in act 2, Teco io sto, has a special affection for me, since it was the first ever recording of the piece that I bought 45 years ago on an LP ‘Callas in Duet’. Hearing it in context it is even more obvious what a superb radar-couple she and Di Stefano were at their best. Di Stefano’s ardent and warm Riccardo is one of his best recorded roles and he is hushed and mellifluous in Di tu se fedele in the Ulrica scene but I wish Votto had speeded it up a bit – I miss the bounce. È scherzo od è follia is much closer to the mark and Di Stefano sings it with a chuckle in the voice.

In the last act Riccardo’s aria is warmly sung but there are some unwelcome signs of pinched tone here that were to become more prominent during the next few years. The death scene is however soft and touching.

Un ballo in maschera had few recordings during the first two decades of the LP era. Besides a 1954 Cetra set with Tagliavini as a good but slightly lachrymose Riccardo, there was Solti’s on Decca with Birgit Nilsson and Carlo Bergonzi - it was to have been Jussi Björling but the conductor and tenor ended up on non-speaking terms during the sessions in Rome, and when the recording was resumed Björling was already dead. Then came an RCA set with Leontyne Price and again Bergonzi. The latter has always been my favourite with Leinsdorf a more positive conductor than either Votto or Solti, Bergonzi the ideal Riccardo and Leontyne Price’s smoky-toned Amelia less individual than Callas but still a splendid assumption. The supporting cast is excellent and the sound is first class. Of later essays first prize must go to Muti on EMI with Martina Arroyo and Placido Domingo. Abbado on DG is a runner-up with Ricciarelli and Domingo (again) and Bruson a fine Renato. Whichever version one has or buys Callas’s and Gobbi’s contributions to the Votto set will never be surpassed and Di Stefano is up there among the best, too.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2008

Though Maria Callas never placed Un ballo in maschera in her repertoire - her only stage appearances in the opera being at La Scala towards the end of 1957 - it was an score which ideally suited her voice. Columbia took her into the recording studio in September 1956 with a cast that was as good as any that has ever been assembled. Giuseppe Di Stefano’s voice was in superb shape, the lyric passages flowing effortlessly, while those high lying moments rang out with total security. His characterisation of Riccardo was perfectly paced from the playboy atmosphere of the opening through to the final fatal drama. The opening of the second act with Callas was electrifying, while he avoids over acting in his final death scene. Tito Gobbi made an eager Renato, the whole of the first scene of the third act dominated by his presence, a sardonic quality in his voice often introduced to good effect. I like the pert Eugenia Ratti in the part of Oscar, her voice is rather one-dimensional but handles the acrobatics with ease, while the highly experienced Fedora Barbieri is a rather sinister Ulrica. And so to Amelia with Callas in superb form. I am not going to be drawn into a discussion as to the merits of this and her subsequent ‘live’ La Scala version. I hate intrusive applause, so studio conditions are a major advantage for me, and she really cannot be faulted in either version. It is a performance that emphasises everything that was admirable in her voice, and the fact that she was just coming to the role speaks volumes as to her musicianship. I would have to admit that the conductor, Antonino Votto, is a passive personality providing the backdrop from a La Scala orchestra that should have been far better, while Gavazzoni in the ‘live’ recording brings an added sense of forward impetus. So I conclude by saying that the transfer from LP is by far the best this recording has ever enjoyed, and for me this is the Un ballo recording to have despite the many rival versions that have since appeared.

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