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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera - Opera in three Acts (1859)
Riccardo, Count of Warwick and Governor of Boston, USA - Franceso Meli (tenor); Renato, his secretary - Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone); Amelia, Renato’s his wife, loved by Riccardo - Kristin Lewis (soprano); Ulrica, a fortune teller - Elisabetta Fiorillo (mezzo); Oscar, Riccardo’s page - Serena Gamberoni (soprano); Silvano, a sailor - Filippo Polineli (tenor); Samuel, enemy of Riccardo - Antonio Barbagallo (bass); Tom, another enemy of Riccardo - Enrico Paolillo (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio, Parma/Gianluigi Gelmetti
Directed by Massimo Gasparon after Pierluigi Samaritani
Set and Costume Designer: Pierluigi Samaritani
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. 1, 5, 9, 13, 20, 23 October 2011, Parma Verdi Festival
Sound Format: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Filmed in HD; Aspect ratio: 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR 724208 [138:00 + 11:00] 

This is numbered 21 in C Major’s series of what it calls Tutto Verdi, (all of Verdi). The series comprises twenty-six of his operas (excluding two re-written titles) and his Requiem. It has been issued to celebrate the bicentenary.
 
The present recording, like all except a handful, was made in association with the Teatro Regio in Parma, a town near the village where Verdi was born. Parma instituted an annual Verdi Festival in 2004. 
By the time of the composition of Ballo in Maschera, Verdi was rich, powerful and famous. He had purchased an estate at Sant’Agata near his birthplace and found peace and great pleasure in its development. He no longer needed to write two operas each year and only agreed a contract if location, singers and subject appealed to him.
 
In 1857 he wanted to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. When the Teatro San Carlo in Naples approached him Verdi did not believe the house soprano to be suitable for his vision of Cordelia. Instead, he chose Un Ballo in Maschera based on the true story of the assassination of Gustavus, King of Sweden, at a ball. Verdi asked the poet Antonio Somma to prepare a libretto. When it was submitted to the censor’s office in Naples they made seven major objections that involved no fewer than two hundred and ninety-seven lines, nearly one third of the text. Their objections involved the assassination of a king, the location in northern Europe, the inclusion of sorcery and the use of firearms on stage. Poet and composer agreed the transfer of location to Boston, America, the King to become a Duke and the assassination to be a stabbing not a shooting. Still the censor was not satisfied and Verdi cast around for another theatre. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the Teatro Apollo with the original King becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick, an English colonial governor, and the Swedish Count Ankarstrom, becoming Renato his secretary.
 
Riccardo secretly loves Amelia the wife of his secretary and trusted friend Renato, who warns him that conspirators are plotting to kill him. Despite the warnings, Riccardo goes, disguised, to hear a gypsy soothsayer to test her powers. There he finds Amelia pleading to be rid of her feelings for him. She is told to pick some herbs, at midnight, from below the gallows. Testing the gypsy with his hand, Riccardo, incognito, is told that the first to clasp his hand, will kill him. No one will take his hand until his friend, Renato, arrives and greets him. Amelia and Riccardo meet as she visits the gallows, gathering the necessary herbs. In a magnificent duet they declare their mutual love. Renato arrives to warn the King of imminent danger and is left to guard his veiled wife. The conspirators arrive and force her to reveal her identity. Renato believing himself to be betrayed by both his wife and friend joins the plot against the life of Riccardo. Lots are drawn to choose the assassin and Renato is, to his vengeful joy, chosen. Meanwhile the King realises he must break with Amelia and he writes an order appointing her husband to a post abroad accompanied by his wife. This is only revealed after Renato fatally stabs Riccardo at a masked ball. Riccardo dies proclaiming Amelia’s innocence and asking that all his enemies be pardoned.
 
This production by Pierluigi Samaritani, who was also responsible for the costumes and sets, dates back to the late nineteen-eighties, and it shows. Revised here by Massimo Gasparon it is bright, colourful and devoid of producer concepts or regietheater effects. The only off-beat visual is the fuzzy hair attached to some masks in the final act. With these visual virtues to the fore it is even more a pity that the musical side never rises above what we associate with provincial standards; this except perhaps when the Oscar of Serena Gamberoni is on-stage and Vladimir Stoyanov is spitting revenge in Eri Tu (CH.34). The big disappointment is Franceso Meli as Riccardo. The role is a dream for a tenor of elegant tone and gracious phrasing. With Meli, the days of his vocal mellifluousness, as in his singing of Elvino in the 2006 recording of La Sonnambula,seem to have passed (review). In a roughly contemporaneous profile and interview for France's Opéra magazine Meli indicated his wish to move towards the lyric tenor fach. The outcome here is vocal strength allied to a hard edge and an overall monochromic tone that thins at the top. Meli hardly brings any character distinction between the three arias that are core to the role and to which the likes of Bergonzi and Björling graced with such finesse and vocal characterisation.
 
As Amelia Kristin Lewis has a welcome firm middle to her voice and brings much character to the love duet in act two, letting her voice soar (CHs.24-26). She is no Leontyne Price, lacking vocal control in places, a vice also evident in Elisabetta Fiorillo’s Ulrica, albeit her low notes are sonorous. Of the lesser roles the two conspirators are vocally steady and act well. Vocally notable is the Silvano of Filippo Polineli.
 
As always in this series, the chorus act and sing with involvement. They are quite thrilling in the final scene as the tension mounts and Riccardo is stabbed. This is one place where Gelmetti’s hard-driven tempi are justified.
 
Robert J Farr
 

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