Reviews for IPCD 1033-2
Verdi UN BALLO IN MASCHERA
Ettore Panizza, cond; Jussi Bjoerling (Riccardo); Zinka Milanov (Amelia); Alexander Sved (Renato); Bruna Castagna (Ulrica)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, 14 December 1940
Bonus: Puccini: LA BOHÈME: Finale, Act One (Karl Kritz, cond; Jussi Bjoerling, Licia Albanese, San Francisco Opera Orchestra) Live recording: 25 September 1949
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1033-2 (2 CDs: 155:47)
This Ballo has been prized among opera collectors for decades. It appeared on at least six different LP labels, the best being the Met’s own restoration in their fund-raising series of historic broadcasts. On CD it has been issued three different times by Myto, and on Arkadia, Radio Years, and Great Opera Performances, as well as on the new Sony “Verdi at the Met” set of ten operas. However, this is the restoration to have. Richard Caniell’s painstaking, detailed oriented approach has yielded the fullest, most natural sound, with the least constriction and grit, of any including the new Sony. The singers sound more like themselves here than they do anywhere else, and the dynamic range is larger here, less compressed. The original source is still no prize, and this does not sound as well as a good 1939 studio recording would. But it is clean enough for anyone who has tolerance for historic recordings to find more than acceptable. And the performance, while not without flaws, is wonderful.
The most important aspect of this Ballo is Bjoerling’s Riccardo. This is a role he did not record commercially, and it is surely his presence in this cast that is the main reason this performance has been so widely circulated. The shame is that the performance cuts the last act aria – a baffling decision to be sure. Stephen Hastings’ superb notes make a strong case that the decision was Bjoerling’s. Nonetheless, the Swedish tenor is splendid in this role. His voice was in its golden prime in 1940, his singing is stylish, with an evenness of tone and smoothness of legato that can serve as a model for other singers. There have certainly been tenors capable of more specificity of inflection, and with at least an equal feel for the shape of the music, but none with this glorious beauty of timbre. That golden tone and Bjoerling’s innate feel for the line of the music make this performance essential for vocal collectors. His singing in the final scene of the opera is heartbreakingly beautiful, and alone justifies the set.
Hastings’ essay includes a splendid analysis of Milanov’s singing – some of the best writing I have seen on the subject. He points out, with uncanny insight, why some react negatively to her while others admire her with few reservations. I put myself mostly in that latter class. I recognize that she could wander from the correct pitch (usually sharp), and that too many of her recordings were made toward the end of her career when the vocal defects were magnified. Here she is glorious. Still in her thirties, the voice in pristine condition, her ability to float those wonderful pianos already established, along with her unerring sense of how to phrase this music. She, like Bjoerling, may not have been the most subtle or convincing actor, but her singing has real impact and stays long in the memory.
The other singer who makes a huge impact is Bruna Castagna, substituting in this performance for Kerstin Thorborg. Castagna had a voice that immediately announces its presence and its importance. Not a rich, beautiful mezzo, it is rather a dark, focused but never unpleasant or shrill voice, one perfectly suited to Verdi’s dramatic mezzo characters like Azucena, Amneris, and Ulrica. You know how it is said about great actors that you cannot take your eyes off them when they are on stage. Well, you cannot take your ears off of Castagna when she is singing. Every phrase has dramatic and musical impact.
Alexander Sved gets a big ovation for “Eri tu,” but one suspects that is more for sheer volume of sound than anything else. His singing lacks finesse and variety of color or inflection. It is gruff and lacking the tonal juice or legato of the great Verdi baritones like Tibbett or Warren. It is certainly more than adequate, but not quite up to the level of Castagna, Milanov or Bjoerling. The other singers are more than adequate, and the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts because of the intense conducting of Panizza. The more we hear of him, the more we realize that he was a hugely important component of the Met during his years there. He brings warmth, expansiveness, tautness and drama to the score in equal and balanced proportions, and gets his orchestra, chorus and singers to all sing as if they believe in their characters and Verdi’s score.
To sum up, this is an important performance of Un ballo in maschera, not one that can be recommended as a basic recording because of its cuts and sonic limitations, but one that should be heard by anyone serious about operatic performance history and tradition. Richard Caniell has improved the sound meaningfully over all other releases of this performance, including Sony’s, and serious vocal collectors will find reason to rejoice in this release. Immortal Performances also brings their usual high standards to the production: insightful, thorough essays, and great photos. Also included is Milton Cross’ commentary; some will find it intrusive, others will welcome it as a recreation of the atmosphere of the broadcasts of the period. It is separately tracked, so you can easily bypass it.
The second disc is filled out with the final scene of the first act of Puccini’s La bohème from a San Francisco Opera performance of September 25, 1949 featuring Bjoerling with Licia Albanese – both singers in their prime. Here too, there is constriction and grit in the recording, but the glory of Bjoerling’s sound comes through well enough (the notes correctly point out that he transposes the aria and the end of the duet down so as to sing B’s rather than C’s – he is neither the first nor last great tenor to do that). Albanese’s rendition of Mimì’s aria is clearly not from the same performance. The sound is much better and there is no Rodolfo to sing the “Si” interjection (the notes tell us it is from a 1948 concert performance). After her aria we go back to the 1949 performance for the byplay of the bohemians and the final duet. Caniell had to do this because the amateur who recorded the scene was a Bjoerling enthusiast and only recorded the parts with Bjoerling, thus missing Mimì’s aria, and the interjections of Rodolfo’s roommates. Caniell put it all in from other performances and sources. My only problem is that the clarity of the recording of her aria emphasizes the flaws in the recording of the remainder of the La bohème material – but it is gorgeous singing and I’m glad to have it as an extra to the Masked Ball.
Verdi UN BALLO IN MASCHERA
Jussi Björling (tenor) – Riccardo, King of Sweden; Alexander Svéd (baritone) – Renato, his aide; Zinka Milanov (soprano) – Amelia, Renato’s wife; Bruna Castagna (mezzo-soprano) – Ulrica, a sorceress; Stella Andreva (soprano) – Oscar, page to the King; Arthur Kent (bass) – Silvano, a sailor in the King’s service; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Tom, conspirator; Norman Cordon (bass) – Samuel, conspirator; John Carter (tenor) – The Chief Magistrate; Lodovico Oliviero (tenor) – A servant to Amelia; Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Ettore Panizza
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, 14 December 1940
Bonus: (Premiere on disc)
Puccini: LA BOHÈME: Finale, Act One Rodolfo; Licia Albanese (soprano) – Mimì; Enzo Mascherini (baritone) – Marcello; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Colline; San Francisco Opera Orchestra/Karl Kritz, Live recording: 25 September 1949
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1033-2 (2 CDs: 155:47)
This performance has been around in various disguises before but here it comes up fresh as a morning in early June, thanks to the loving re-creation and restoration by Richard Caniell. A 73-year-old broadcast revitalized to such a degree that it can compete with many studio recordings of the same vintage when it comes to dynamics, lifelike string tone and transparency of the orchestral fabric. The chorus is also recorded with great impact – and the quality of the singing anno 1940 is far superior to what can be heard on some later sets from the same house. A special treat, as on so many issues of MET broadcasts, is the comment by Milton Cross, who hosted these Saturday evening radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan for forty-three seasons and only missed two broadcasts. Cross also reminds us that this Ballo production was a real event, since the opera had not been seen at the MET since 1916. By the way, isn’t it strange planning of Edward Johnson to launch two premieres of Verdi operas within less than two weeks – and with several singers involved in both? On 2 December Björling, Thorborg and Svéd brought Un ballo in maschera before the public for the first time in 24 years; on 12 December all three were scheduled for the Trovatore premiere. As it turned out both Thorborg and Svéd backed out, due to indisposition, but Svéd recovered quickly and was able to sing two days later.
Hungarian Svéd already had an important career in Europe behind him before arriving in New York - the Ballo premiere on 2 December was his MET debut – and in 1937 he had sung Renato opposite Björling at the Vienna State Opera.
Bruna Castagna, the only Italian singer in the cast (Moscona, in spite of his Italian sounding name, was Greek) was one of the truly great mezzo-sopranos of the 1930s and early 1940s but is largely forgotten today, probably due to a lack of commercial recordings. In my collection I only found the Seguidilla from Carmen (1938) and the Spring song from Samson et Dalila (1941). But there are numerous issues of MET performances on labels like Myto, Archipel, Melodram, Arkadia, Gala and Walhall, and they are worth seeking out. Her Re dell’abisso (CD 1 tr. 13) is masterly: what grandezza, what intensity and what expressivity!
I have left the loving couple until last, since here we have grandezza in galore! Zinka Milanov, who had been on the MET roster since 1937 and continued to be so until 1966, must be counted as one of the great Verdi sopranos of the 20th century. Born in Zagreb in Croatia in 1906, the same year as Alexander Svéd, and making her debut in Ljubljana in 1927 as Leonora in Il trovatore and spent the next ten years at the Zagreb opera with guest appearances in Hamburg, Dresden and Prague, where Edward Johnson, Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, heard her and engaged her to the Met. She made her debut there, again as Leonora, on 17 December 1937, and sang 460 times at the MET, fourteen of these opposite Jussi Björling. I thought it should be more but the Metropolitan Opera Data Base is a generally reliable source. Here, at age 34, she is at her freshest and most radiant. She may not peer too deep into the character of Amelia, but vocally she is superb and her hallmarks, the fearless and ringing top notes and her wonderful floated pianissimos grace her readings of the two arias, Ecco l’orrido campo (Cd 1tr. 21) and Morrò, ma prima in grazia (CD 2 tr. 5), where she is heart-rending. She also reigns the ensembles where she takes part, but even better than that is the long duet with Riccardo, Teco io sto (CD 1 tr. 22-23). Here she is both magnificent and loving- One never doubts that this is a woman deeply in love – however immoral the situation is, considering that she is a woman, married to the King’s best friend.
In the 1955 she recorded excerpts from Ballo with Jan Peerce and Leonard Warren (available on Nimbus) and she sings marvellously there too . . . Here she is at her freshest and produces some of the loveliest Verdi singing of the period.
Jussi is in marvellous shape here. Riccardo, more than perhaps any other Verdi role, needs lightness and elegance, pared with brilliance. . . . The only excerpt from Ballo with Jussi that has been available on commercial recordings is Di tu se fedele from the Ulrica scene. He sings it splendidly here (CD 1 tr. 16), with the right swagger and taking that ‘impossible’ low D twice. Earlier than that, at the very opening he has presented his credentials very convincingly in an elegant, airy La rivedrà nell’ estasi (CD 1 tr. 5). Returning to the Ulrica scene his silver tones lend an elegance to È scherzo od è follia (CD 1 tr. 17).
When Riccardo meets Amelia at the gallows-place, Jussi at first seems at a disadvantage in relation to Zinka Milanov, placed more distantly from the microphone but he soon comes on his own and then he is superb: lyrical, warm and impassioned. In the opening of the final scene, Forse la soglia attinse (CD 2 tr. 10) is sung with such ardour and glow, that there is a double pity that he omits the romanza Ma se m’è forza perderti. It seems that he sang it at the premiere but after that thought he had so much to sing in this opera anyway. He is also deeply touching in his death scene.
All in all this is a very valuable to the catalogue of recordings of Un ballo in maschera, now that it is restored in sound that is more or less comparable with studio recordings from the same period. But the joy is not over there. As a bonus we get the Act I finale from La bohème, recorded in San Francisco in 1949 with Licia Albanese as Mimì and never before issued. . . . The sound quality is nowhere in the vicinity of the 1940 Ballo but we get yet an opportunity to hear Jussi Björling in his signature role, singing opposite Albanese, with whom he sang the role eight times.
The recording of Un ballo in maschera has been available in various disguises before but never, to my knowledge, in such excellent sound. Should be a ‘must-buy’ for every admirer of Jussi Björling!