Cher Public

Splendidissima!

A 1989 production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera should have been another jewel in Herbert von Karajan’s already quite impressive crown.  A stellar cast, an impeccable orchestra, an enormous period set –the grand opera of Salzburg under his regime.  He had recently finished a studio recording with the cast, and was preparing them for the opening night. 

Unfortunately, Karajan died shortly before the premiere, and as a last minute replacement, Georg Solti was flown in.  This DVD records a revival from the following year with the same cast, and any hiccups that may have occurred at the debut have been eradicated completely. 

Solti has an iron grip on the Vienna Philharmonic.  His movements are sharp and precise, emphasizing the sudden punches in Verdi’s score.  The approach is structural, allowing the drama to build up gradually throughout the evening, until it becomes clear that Verdi is hurtling towards disaster.  Most impressively, the many ensembles numbers are air-tight, and every voice can be clearly heard.

The production is traditional in all the best ways.  The liner notes describe Karajan’s choice to return the setting to Sweden as “unusual,” which although not particularly true, certainly adds local flavor.  At any rate, opulence is the theme of the day, and the Count of Anckarström’s wood-lined apartment is almost comically oversized.

But overall, William Dudley’s sets are impressive, particularly in the last act, where the masked ball is epic.  John Schlesinger’s direction is clear and detailed even with his enormous cast.  The major characters are clearly thought out, and the chorus resorts to fewer ‘”historical” stock gestures than usual.  The video is well produced, with Brian Large’s camerawork catching fascinating details as well as emphasizing the grandeur of the production.

Plácido Domingo is clearly the star, and he acquits himself beautifully.  He may sound a bit less velvety than some of his other Gustavos over the previous two decades, but he has found new depth over that same time – he is still very much in his prime.  Verdi’s characterization doesn’t match the psychological detail found in his later despots juggling political and romantic agendas (as perhaps Philippe or Amneris), but Domingo brings a profound sense of guilt that wasn’t apparent in his more youthful performances.

Josephine Barstow is not an immediately obvious Amelia; her sound is unambiguously British, as is her characterization.  If not ideal vocally, she is utterly convincing as a political wife – stiff and correct in bearing, terrified of being discovered, but more ashamed at her indiscretions.  The opening ‘morrò’ in her Act III aria is spit out with particular self-disgust, and she is a woman who has fallen far in her own eyes.  She is too reserved to generate a lot of sympathy, and the pleasure is rather like watching the fall of one of the more self-deluded Real Housewives of reality tv.  She does sing better than any of the women of that series, but many will prefer Ricciarelli or Millo on competing DVDs.

Leo Nucci makes little impression as the Count Anckarström.  For the first two acts he sings decently but without much presence.  Only when he and Barstow are alone in Act III does he start to feel like an important character, and we start to get a sense of his inner conflict.  The Karajan studio recording finds him in better voice.

Sumi Jo makes a charming Oscar in her Swedish pageboy outfits by Luciana Arrighi – one wonders why Gustavo picks a rather cold married woman rather than the sexy (and unconvincingly male) intern.  Her voice is the smallest of the cast, but we loose only the occasional recit; her high notes cut through the large ensemble numbers, her tone velvety and coloratura rapid-fire.  Thankfully Solti prefers faster tempos than on the Karajan recording, and they suit her temperament perfectly.

Florence Quivar is good campy fun as Ulrica, with wide eyes and grand hand gestures.  She gives off an old-school diva vibe, perfectly suited to the exorcism she performs.  Her voice is large without succumbing to wide vibrato, and every note is clear.

Of the current DVDs on the market, this is certainly one of the top contenders, realistically competing only with Domingo’s 1975 Covent Garden outing and Pavarotti’s two Metropolitan Opera performances.  Domingo’s interpretation certainly has the most depth among these releases, although many will find the other Amelias preferable.   But the strength of the production is in the completeness of vision, with starry performers, monumental sets, and great conducting.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    “Josephine Barstow is not an immediately obvious Amelia; her sound is unambiguously British, as is her characterization. If not ideal vocally…”

    This review is an outrage to the greatest Verdi soprano since Joyce Gartside and to all lovers of fine vocalism.

    How could an “unambiguously British” sound be counted a defect? Nor is mention made of Dame Jo’s sterling diction — even in rum foreign tongues.

    • messa di voce

      Any comments, Vicar, on Mary Plazas’s recent overwhelming triumph at Buxton as “Maria di Rohan”?

      • armerjacquino

        British singer sings at small scale British opera festival. The SCANDAL!

        • MontyNostry

          And Plazas is something of a small-scale British singer too.

  • phoenix

  • armerjacquino

    I’m usually quacking on about people being unnecessarily mean to singers on here, but I’d say this review is probably overly kind to Barstow. Millo and Ricciarelli aren’t just preferable, they’re in a different league altogether.

    Opera Depot recently had a free download of old ENO stuff, and Barstow’s contributions were laughably bad (literally- when I heard the end of ‘Sempre Libera’ I barklaughed).

    • The Vicar of John Wakefield

      Vicious slander! — a committed Violetta who made one forget, however briefly, the achievements of Fretwell in the role!

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      While you’re briefly in touch with your catty side care to share your thoughts on what’s happening here?

      Outside of the fact that this is the slowest Pace, Pace Mio Dio sung anywhere (yes including Caballe) what are we even meant to do with this. For a second I thought Barstow was playing up the idea that Leonora was slowly losing her grip on sanity hanging out in that cave, but by the end she seems ready to join the Black Panthers. Oh also has anyone else’s vibrato quite vibrated their cheek bones the way they do Dame Josephines?

      • armerjacquino

        I’d love to respond, but unfortunately it would involve sitting through the video.

        • phoenix

          yes, I gave up after about 2 minutes into it. She was still stuck modulating her initial pace, pace. Thought maybe my notebook was getting ready to go out on me.

          • MontyNostry

            Dame Jo does hold the final note for an impressively long time, even without taking a Leontyne-style extra breath beforehand. (Sad old thing that I am, I remember being impressed by that when it was originally broadcast on UK TV.) The question is whether there was any volume coming out of her contorted mouth in the opera house itself -- her sound was always so swallowed up. And to think I saw her legendary Amelia in Salzburg the year Solti took over from the recently defunct HvK.

          • armerjacquino

            Now THIS is how to sing Leonora di Vargas:

          • phoenix

            That makes 2 of us sad old things. I still get a party-tape thrill watching her *emote* in a fully staged opera.

          • MontyNostry

            Arroyo had such a fine, healthy, robust and shiny sound, and she is a naturally sympathetic artist, but she just doesn’t join the notes together well. The nudging up to notes has always bothered me in her singing, and it’s a bit monochrome. But the sound itself is splendid.

          • MontyNostry

            … and she does look a little like Mae West.

      • Camille

        The best part is the end.

        She does the last note as written, the hard way, and those hand gestures are worthy of Tina Turner.

        I just love it to smithereens.

        • Camille

          Pfui!

          That last was about Dame Jo, not Martina. Don’t know how it ended here.

        • MontyNostry

          I think that final pose is more Diana Ross than Tina Turner, dearest Camille.

          • Camille

            That’s MISS Ross, Mon cheri!

            Yes, quite right. How could I forget “Stop in the Name of Love”, after having performed it meself into my own hairbrush microphone?

            Tina Turner came to mind at that moment as I was viewing on the telly a recreation of one of her engagements at the Playboy Club. Tina was always lovable, too, whereas Miss Ross was always scary lady!!

          • MontyNostry

            Camille, have you ever read the fantastic bio “Call Her Miss Ross” by J Randy Taraborelli. The best quote is that Diana described Martha and the Vandellas as ‘sociable girls’.

          • Camille

            “Sociable Girls”??? Just like the gals of Parterre!! LOL0 TKS!

          • manou

            Proust, Joyce, Adorno, Bourdieu, J Randy Taraborelli….

            Monty, vous avez des lettres….

  • I’m not so sure that this would have been such a jewel in HvK’s crown had he lived to lead the production. By the 80s, his intepretations were extremely ponderous. The overheavy orchestra (some marvellous sounds aside) and the stodgy direction (which HvK was doing himself at that point) would not have made for an exciting performance, IMO.

  • phoenix

    alright, here goes: I have this DVD from the original release. I find it to be a much better performance than Solti’s dragged out uninspired 1992 Frau ohne Schatten DVD also from Salzburg (but Solti’s 1967 London Frau was superb).
    — After the recent Domingo-inspired copyright extensions & sanctions, I’m not so sure I would buy this Ballo again, but I have listened to it on several occasions and while it’s not what you would call classifiably idiomatic in any sense of the word, it never fails to amuse me. I know Ballo is not a comedy, but since it is one of my LEAST favorite Verdi operas, I find here on this DVD one of the best examples of a superficial but truly escapist grand opera diversion — incredibly old-fashioned, seemingly from a previous long-forgotten era.
    — Dame Josephine is strikingly different, again something out of the ordinary. If I hadn’t seen Margeret Kingsley & Pauline Tinsley sing Verdi, I probably wouldn’t have much perspective on this (I assume) now-vanished style. I don’t find Dame Josephine reserved at all, though much of the pleasure watching this DVD involves her apparent but unsuccessful efforts to be so. Not sure what is meant by ‘unambiguously British’ but ‘self-deluded” this Dame certainly is. And that’s entertainment!

    • Clita del Toro

      Phoenix, just goes to show you--Ballo is one of my very favorites Verdi. I wouldn’t, however, not want to hear Domingo in the role.

      • Clita del Toro

        I wouldn’t, however, not???? What is wrong with me?

      • It’s one of my favourite Verdis as well. I find a lot of humanity in the work. And I am shocked, simply SHOCKED, that you wouldn’t want to hear Domingo in the role! :)

        My favourite Riccardo (I don’t go for that Gustavo crap) is Carreras. Nobody sings the final line after “Ma se me forza perderti” (before the final scene) with the same abandon.

        I tried to find a recording of Carreras singing the aria and instead came across this comparison of Domingo and Carreras.

        • Clita del Toro

          I like Björling and Bergonzi in the role. Have never heard the Carreras. Di Stefano is pretty good too.

          • Di Stefano’s live recording with Maria (1957 La Scala?) is very exciting. I like Bergonzi’s studio recording (with Leinsdorf/Price) but he’s not as thrilling as others. Bjoerling’s performance in the legendary 1940 Met broadcast (with Milanov) is fabulous. Carreras is all passion in the role.

        • Tubsinger

          Kash, I too find the Swedish re-revision (or reversion, to be completely correct) a little much. Unlike a lot of regie Eurotrash out there, I’m not sure the opera really lost any of its impact being set in Colonial America than in Sweden.

          When you said you couldn’t find Carreras singing Ricardo, I presume you meant on YouTube--there’s the commercial Philips recording and a very nice pirated one, both with Caballe. Being a major fan of Davis and Montsy, it must be conceded that that Philips effort is not entirely successful (compared to my favorite, Price/Bergonzi). I was interested to learn that a number of years earlier, Davis and Philips were planning to record the opera in Dresden, and initial results were unsatisfactory enough to impel a cancelation of the sessions.

          I’ve never really warmed to Domingo in Ballo, as there was a more elegant flexibility in early/prime Carreras and Bergonzi. I’ve always regretted not having Bjoerling’s Ballo on record, except for a very old broadcast that I’ve not heard.

          • Yes, you’re correct that I couldn’t find the particular clip I wanted it on youtube. I have the live recording with Caballe (and Bruson?).

    • semira mide

      For Ballo to “work” one needs a Gustavo/Riccardo that is musically/dramatically believable. I’ve not heard anyone do it as convincingly as Pavarotti did (on record)- I don’t have the score in front of me but the passage towards the end where the scene shifts from his reflecting on his sacrifice to his totally reckless abandon in going off to see Amelia one last time is absolutely riveting. That passage to me is the crux of the whole drama.
      Of course I might just be sentimental having seen Gustavo’s garment with the bullet hole in it -- it’s on display in Stockholm. It should be on every Verdi lover’s travel itinerary.

      • phoenix

        No, don’t waste your time on that! Go here to my favorite Stockholm museum!

        http://www.vasamuseet.se/en/

      • armerjacquino

        Pavarotti is indeed convincing on record, but he’s a serious drawback dramatically for any DVD version. Remember that hilarious Vienna production? ‘Where is he, where is he?’ they all sing in the final scene, as a motionless man-mountain fixes himself resolutely downstage centre, his identity ‘hidden’ by the teeniest of Zorro masks.

      • I completely agree about that passage being crucial to the role, which is why I love Carreras in it (it’s the very end of the youtube clip I posted above). I’ve heard two or three different live recordings of that aria by Carreras, and every time, he knocks it out of the part. IMO, much more so that Pavarotti, or Di Stefano for that matter. Del Monaco also sings that line excitingly.

    • MontyNostry

      phoenix, I agree that Solti’s later-period Frauen are really rather horrible, and it’s one of my favourite operas. I’ve never heard the 1967 version. Is that with Heather Harper?(Vicar, where are you?)

      • The Vicar of John Wakefield

        Harper remains the best Ellen Orford since Ava June.

        And how inspiriting to see mention of Margaret Kingsley, another British artist neglected while unnecessary imports like Price, Arroyo and Caballe were tolerated at the Garden.

        How can no one have mentioned Donald Smith’s Masked Ball at Sadler’s Wells??? Some of the finest tenorizing from Down Under since the prime of Lionel Cecil.

        • phoenix

          ha! to see her name in print again! a wave of nostalgia!
          — I remember my first english-language Meistersinger with Ava June as Eva Pogner.

    • MontyNostry

      She wasn’t so much self-deluded as deluded by the irresistible lure of the aged and idiosyncratic Karajan. How could the woman have said no to him at that late-ish stage of her career? Didn’t he do Tosca with her that year at Easter too? He’d already got over Fiamma Izzo d’Amico, clearly.

      • phoenix

        No, the one I heard from 1967 London was with Hildegard Hillebrecht, James King, Inge Borkh, Donald McIntyre and Regina Resnik. I think Charlie once posted some good excerpts from it on his site. I heard it for the first time at Charlie’s apartment 42 years ago.
        — I remember enjoying Fiamma Izzo d’Amico as Elisabetta in Don Carlo (senza Karajan) at Zurich (circa 1990). Fiamma sounded great in the small (1200 seats) Zürcher Opernhaus.

        • MontyNostry

          Let’s face it, 1200 seats is the size an opera house really ought to be!

      • Tubsinger

        And I read that he had convinced Lella Cuberli to record Norma for him. Elektra was on the bordereau as well, but I don’t recall whom he’d cast in that. (Freni? Ricciarelli? Janet Perry?)

        • MontyNostry

          With the sweetly virginal Baltsa as Adalgisa,I believe. (That being said, Cuberli was a nice singer, though not exactly known for her grandezza).
          Was Behrens due to do Elektra? I have the feeling she might have fallen out with HvK, though, perhaps because she was too assertive.

      • marshiemarkII

        Monty, indeed Behrens was in Karajan’s original plan to record (76) and then present Salome at Salzburg (77), and then the following year do same with Elektra, the following summer in Salzburg. Behrens told me several times that she knew perfectly well, even at that young age and relatively inexperienced point in her career, that there was no way she could do Elektra without having sung Brunnhilde first. Note she did not even know she would become a great Brunnhilde yet, but she knew she needed that experience in terms of stamina prior to attempting Elektra, as the requirements are vastly different from Salome. Karajan did not like her refusal, but they remained involved until 1980, with many great plans, most significantly the recording of Parsifal for DG. Karajan, however, was told by the evil intrigants of the day that Behrens had accepted to star as Elektra for the Boehm film. Dr Karl Boehm had indeed asked, and insisted vigorously, that she accept, but she had also declined based on the same premise. The film went to Leonie (which much peeved one Birgit Nilsson, who unjustly accused Leonie of taking “my roles”, unbeknownst to her she had never been considered) but Karajan went into a fit of rage, and sent a telegram to Behrens “consider yourself fired from the Parsifal recording”. Quel dommage, we got Vejzovic instead. Of course Behrens went on to become one of the greatest Elektras, but that was well after she had sung Brunnhilde in complete cycles at Bayreuth and Munich, with the Met Ring about mid-way.

        • Nerva Nelli

          “Of course Behrens went on to become one of the greatest Elektras” …since the prime years of Danica Mastilovic!

          • phoenix

            hee hee hee

        • MontyNostry

          Dear marshie, one simply has to type Hilde’s name and up you pop with the information!

        • Tubsinger

          I thought that Stratas was HvK’s choice for that Salome, and she backed out. I thought I read that Behrens was something of an unknown, singing in provincial German houses until plucked to be Herbie’s new Salome.

          Or am I confusing this Stratas cancelation with a different one…?

          • marshiemarkII

            No Tubsinger, Stratas was indeed the Salome but for the Karl Boehm film, not Karajan. And yes, Behrens was most definitely an unknown then, singing only her very first prima donna role (if you can call it that way), Marie in Wozzeck, when Karajan discovered her in Duesseldorf in 1974. By the time she premiered the Salome in Salzburg, she had already debuted at the Met and the Royal Opera (as Fidelio), but was still fairly unknown. Salzburg was the rocket that catapulted her to the highest echelons, where she remained until 2003.

          • Nerva Nelli

            In re: sterling clear records:

            ” By the time she premiered the Salome in Salzburg, she had already debuted at the Met and the Royal Opera (as Fidelio)”

            The Comparable Hildegard debuted at the Met as Giorgietta (with other artists of similar stature, such as Gianfranco Cecchele and Josella Ligi) — not as Fidelio, as might be inferred from the above.

          • marshiemarkII

            And your point is you witless twit?
            You may criticize my sentence construction all you want, but Behrens did debut at the Royal Opera in Fidelio with the greatest Florestan of the 20th Century, Jon Vickers, and the great Reginall Goodall in the podium. She returned to the Met in 1978 for her second appearance there, as Leonore in Fidelio, with James King as Florestan, under the direction of the very greatest Dr Karl Boehm in the podium. I’d call either of those pretty INCOMPARABLE performances.

            But I guess those giants can’t compare to the luminaries that you fancy, the likes of Benita Valente, Johanna Meier and that other constellation of “stars” I couldn’t possibly remember.
            The dear old Mrs John Claggart is fun and very witty, to say the least, a very worthy antagonist, you are an ignorant BORE.

          • How dare, Marshie, mislead this group by suggesting, through sentence structure no less (!), that Hildy’s Met debut role was Fidelio and not Giorgetta? Have you no shame, sir?

          • marshiemarkII

            :-)
            And you, have you no shame Kashie, calling me sir when I just talked about my black silk and the pearls? No respect around here.

          • Camille

            dear madamigella marshiemarkII!

            I hope you have been well and happy.

            Don’t worry about Nerva; she’s just all upset and consternated as her wigs and gowns for the opening of Anna’s “Anna” have not yet arrived and therefore has not had a chance to choose the rest of her ensemble.

            Carry on and do not invoke the name of the dear departed mrsjohnclaggart, as you will make me too, too sad. Forever gone and forever missed.
            Best, C.

          • Nerva Nelli

            “Behrens did debut at the Royal Opera in Fidelio with the greatest Florestan of the 20th Century, Jon Vickers…”

            … who also appeared in this opera with Aase Nordmo-Loevborg, Teresa Kubiak and another comparable Hildegard, Frau Hillebrecht.

          • peter

            Nerva, have another listen to Teresa Kubiak (at least the Tannhauser broadcast). 30+ years really make a difference. Without even the slightest suggestion that the quality of singing has gone down in the past 30 years, we’d be quite fortunate to have her singing these days.

          • Nerva Nelli

            Peter, Kubiak had a fine voice ( as long as she had it) as can be heard on LA CALISTO and the too glitzky, Russian-free but well-vocalized Solti ONEGIN ( which imoortalized the Fillipeevna of dear old Enid Hartle).

            Her Boston Leonore with Vickers though was pretty much a disaster- she broke down in the aria and was not really prepared for the role.

            I missed her one Met shot at the role, in an eyebrow-raising cast:

            New York, Brooklyn, Prospect Park
            June 25, 1982 [Parks]
            In Concert

            FIDELIO {167}

            Leonore……………..Teresa Kubiak
            Florestan……………Robert Nagy
            Don Pizarro………….Peter Glossop
            Rocco……………….Ara Berberian
            Marzelline…………..Eleanor Bergquist

          • peter

            Kubiak will always hold the distinction of singing the Met’s first Jenufa in its long overdue premier in 1974.

          • armerjacquino

            I saw a wonderful, wonderful soprano called Barbara Kubiak sing in the Verdi Requiem in Warsaw a couple of years ago. I’ve been unable to find out if she is any relation.

          • peter

            Oops! Forgot about Jeritza in the 20’s.

  • MontyNostry

    I have Fiamma’s sole EMI recital. It’s not bad at all, even if the voice lacked a bit of colour. She had spirit.

    • manou

      …and fire, obviously.

    • armerjacquino

      I’ve got that somewhere, I should look it out.

  • phoenix

    Sorry about the poor miked sound coming from five different directions but it’s still worth an effortful listen (Nina Rautio & Vladimir Atlantov):

  • Will I get shot at if I suggest that I completely loathe all Solti’s commercially released efforts in this opera (the Nilsson / Bergonzi, the Price / Pavarotti is even more vulgar, unbelievably badly played, not a chord in unison, striving for cheap effects instead of trying to find the ‘tinta’ of the score, nobody knows what the tempo will be from one bar to the next, no clear beat, everybody doing their own thing, everything recorded in a bathtub). This video is no exception, and Barstow is horrible to watch and painful to hear. Basta. I rather like Domingo in this though I think Pav had this role much more ‘etched’ into the voice, his best role I think. Jo is nice to have around, Nucci is a dull dog (if reliable, for what it’s worth) and I rather like Quivar’s clean-cut, lyrical Ulrica. I prefer the original Swedish setting, as the murder of a king is much more dramatically shocking than having a governor murdered.

    I love, love love the Levine Millo / Pav video. It has completely changed my appreciation of this delightful work. I used to ‘not get it’, even after having heard Abbado, Muti, Toscanini, Walter, whatever. But Levine knows this work inside out, he has the lightness of touch, the wealth of colour, he knows how to juxtapose the buffo / serio elements, in the shocking way Verdi surely intended. The act II duet is greatness personified from everybody. Between them, Millo and Levine tend to ‘soup up’ Amelia’s arias, but that’t the only blemish. Nucci is better here, still a dull dog but he fits into the general picture. Quivar very good, Blackwell slightly embarrassing. But this is Pav’s night and he knows it. In very good voice, breating slightly compromised here and there, still it is his most moving, complete role and his best recording of it. I know he’s constantly ridiculed for being impossible onstage, but here he is very sincere and moving and of course, this is not necessarily a story about young people. I love this DVD to distraction, and had to buy a second copy, having weared out my first one.

    listen at 0:30 how Levine points out the delicious cello counterpoint, such detail is worthy of Toscanini or Abbado.

    • Here’s the act 1 trio -- again wonderful. Levine finds the humanity, the lyrical side, and the Beethovenian motivic closure.
      On an aside note, I love the way Verdi took the opening motive, turned it upside down and transformed it into the Forza del destino motive.

  • aulus agerius

    Paul Groves will be singing Riccardo/Gustavo in New Orleans in Nov. What do you think? Worth going to?….apart from the food, I mean.

    • The Vicar of John Wakefield

      “Paul Groves will be singing Riccardo/Gustavo in New Orleans in Nov. What do you think? Worth going to?….”

      Where is Paul Charles-Clarke??????

  • marshiemarkII

    And one has to type the name Marshie and ineffable Nerva immediately pries herself away from the jar of Hagen Daasz and shouts the same inanity, that is witty to no one but herself, over all these long years. You mean Mastilovic got ovations like this Nerva?