Un Ballo in Maschera, live DVD

Did they really sing better two generations ago ? Of course they did and the proof is in this DVD though it is only fair to say that mainly Verdi, Puccini and the giovane scuole were the receivers of the benefit. Rossini or lesser known Donizetti no doubt nowadays profit from the fact that a vocal and stylistic renaissance from the eighties on made their works better known though I have a feeling that it is the dearth of big voices that gives smaller voices at last the possibility to excel (impressive Florez may be but young Ugo Benelli sang even more beautiful and he had the high C’s as well but no one at the time felt the need to perform the operas he would have been brilliant in). There is another reason for the quality of singing on this DVD. All  8 singers are Italian and therefore the language, the feeling for the meaning of words and thus the phrasing comes naturally to them. No boring generic world wide generic style with people flying in from the US, Russia, Uruguay and a lone Italian here and there. Like the equally magnificent Forza del destino (Corelli, Tebaldi, Bastianini) this DVD is testimony to a civilisation “gone with the wind”. Opera is now a moribund art in Italy and young people have other means of earning money without taking risks in a world full of sharks and bloody infighting.

But these were the last days when Italy still sang and what a testimony it is. Take the conviction of small bit players like Plinio Clabassi and Antonio Zerbini as Sam and Tom. These are voices that could easily fill a house in main roles. Take that wonderful soprano Margherita Guglielmi who indeed had quite a career with big roles. Nowadays no soprano with the lightness of touch, the fine coloratura and the beautiful timbre would accept the role of Oscar (only nr. 4 in the ranking by importance in this opera) as she could easily earn better money as the prima donna of the evening. And take that magnificent mezzo that was Lucia Danieli: a big generous voice, striking colours in it, easily dominating and homogenous from top to bottom. A worthy competitor for Giulietta Simionato in the fifties or Fiorenza Cossotto in the early sixties: shamefully neglected by record companies (Pick up the wonderful live CD Clama produced before it is deleted !). Danieli I knew to be excellent but Mario Zanasi was a surprise. I heard him in his great days as an imposing Amonasro and a less than stylish father Germont. Of course here are the great brown colours one expects from the real Verdi baritone but contrary to my live experience here is restraint as well and no bawling. Maybe he doesn’t strike you as very original in Eri tu ? and he is more impressive in Alla vita but overall he is excellent. Antonietta Stella too is a surprise. Of course she was a real stella in the fifties when she competed with Tebaldi and Callas and was as popular in Italy. After all she was the only  soprano to steal a Scala opening night during the reigning years of Callas  at La Scala. But by the early sixties some of her heavier roles had taken some toll and the handling of the voice became somewhat wooden with often a dull tone creeping in. Compare her Maddalena in a televised RAI-Chénier of October 1955 (with Del Monaco at his exciting best) with her official EMI-recording (June 1963 – Franco Corelli) and the difference is marked. So I feared for the worst in this live recording of four years later. Maybe some of the bloom has gone out of the voice but the woodenness is absent and the top is very secure though it spreads a little under pressure. She nevertheless sings movingly and succeeds very well in venting Amelia’s anguish, love and remorse at the same time. But of course the main reason for this DVD is that this is only one of four live registrations of Carlo Bergonzi. He is at his most mellifluous (indeed, some Del Monaco lovers will probably think him a bit epheminate), always singing stylishly with that uninterrupted stream of sound that is an object lesson to every other tenor while at the same time he is not above introducing small tears in the voice without sobbing his heart out. The DVD should be obligatory fare for every aspiring Verdi tenor. It is true however that  he never was a high note hunter and squillo is not his forte. Above the stave the voice thickens somewhat and there is a slightly pushed sound. Oliviero De Farbritiis is the experienced conductor who gives his singers all necessary leeway without letting them drag on.

The picture quality is slightly murky though this is never disturbing and it is a after all in acceptable colours; no mean feat in a time when cameras in the theatre were often too weak to register them. More important, this DVD proves that all singers could act their parts in a very convincing way without hamming up. All of them are outstanding and prove that in other days (when cameras were a normal feature) they would easily have adopted to new exigencies but they still sang in a time that lighting was so much poorer and that some broad gestures were necessary as otherwise everybody in the third row would only have noted completely stock still figures without any emotion. And yes, even Bergonzi does his best. His death scene is very convincing. Granted,  the moment the music goes above the stave all acting stops with him and his eyes turn to heaven while one of his arms goes straight forward to help him get the note. With his stocky figure and broad face he is handicapped the most by this traditionally produced Swedish version as he looks often a bit comical with his big wig. He looks far better wigless in the witch cave and for Bergonzi’s and our sake it would have been better if everything was played in the Boston version. Indeed, this hybrid version doesn’t make sense. While Stockholm is the place of action, Renato nevertheless stays Renato instead of becoming Anckarström while Horn and Ribbing too stay Sam and Tom.
There is a bonus at the end: an interview with Antonietta Stella (why not with Bergonzi ?), still looking fine at 79. But the interviewer is inept and doesn’t insist when the lady shirks some questions (she admits having sung with Corelli and immediately jumps to other tenors. She has clearly not forgiven the tenor’s behaviour during their run of Fanciulla at La Scala in 1964). As a result most of her answers are cliché only.
A DVD that has to be in any vocal buff’s collection.

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia