Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2010 and the recording is still available.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera
– Opera in 3 Acts (1859)
 Riccardo, Count of Warwick and Governor – Carlo Bergonzi (tenor); Renato, his secretary – Robert Merrill (baritone); Amelia, Renato’s wife, loved by Riccardo – Leontyne Price (soprano); Ulrica, a fortune-teller – Shirley Verrett (mezzo); Oscar, Riccardo’s page – Reri Grist (soprano); Silvano, a sailor – Mario Basioli (baritone); Samuel, enemy of Riccardo – Ezio Flagello (bass); Tom, another enemy of Riccardo – Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass)
RCA Italiana Opera orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. June 1966, RCA Italiana studios, Rome, Italy
Reviewed as Sony Opera House 88697581322; currently available as a download
Sony Classical G0100035637285 [128]

After the composition of his great trio of so-called middle period operas, Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (both 1853), Verdi was a rich and powerful man. 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. However, when the Teatro San Carlo in Naples approached him Verdi did not believe the house soprano to be suitable for his vision of Cordelia. He chose instead the subject of Un Ballo in Maschera. He asked the poet Antonio Somma to prepare a libretto. When this was submitted to the censor in Naples they made seven major objections that involved no fewer than 297 lines of the 884 in 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 a transfer of location to Boston, the King to Duke and a stabbing not shooting. Any chance of these concessions went with the news of Felice Orsini’s attempt on the life of Napoleon III of France in Paris on 13 January 1858. The Naples Chief of Police ruled that the opera text would have to be re-written in its entirety to preclude any dancing on stage and the murder must be off-stage.

Amid some acrimony and a threatened court case Verdi sought another venue. The censor in Rome was more accommodating and the opera saw its first performance at the Teatro Apollo on 17 February 1859 with the King becoming Riccardo, Earl of Warwick, an English colonial governor, his secretary and friend became Renato. Of those operas composed between Il Trovatore and La Traviata and Aida (1871) Un Ballo in Maschera was the only opera of Verdi’s reduced output to maintain a foothold in the repertoire throughout its life. Both Il Trovatore and Aida require spinto, or large, voices. Whilst Un Ballo in Maschera has lovely, lyrical and light-hearted moments it is one of drama and the plotting and realisation of murder. For the soprano part of Amelia a large voice is needed with strength in the lower tones to match the dark hues of the music, particularly in Morro, ma prima in grazia as she pleads with her husband to see her children before he kills her (CD 2 tr.6) as well as the soaring notes and lyrical tonal beauty in the love duet with Ricardo (CD 1.tr.23). Likewise the role of Riccardo requires a tenor with light-hearted elegance of phrase, the heft to match the demands of the love duet and expressiveness to encompass the compassion of his dying moments at the climax of the drama (CD 2 tr.24).

To these vocal demands on the two principals must be added the characterisation and vocal skills required for the roles of Oscar, Ulrica and Renato. Despite these challenges, Un Ballo in Maschera has proved popular in both theatre and recording studio. It is one of Callas’s more successful recorded Verdi roles (see review) whilst of the great tenors of the last decades of the twentieth century Pavarotti, Domingo and Bergonzi recorded it twice in the studio and Carreras once. In my view none of these great tenors encompassed the demands of the role as does Bergonzi in this recording. It even outclasses his earlier effort for a rather hard-driving Solti (see review). Among many vocal gems of the composer’s music recorded by Bergonzi in his heyday, his beautiful tone is matched by wonderful diction, legato and variety of expression. Listen to his characterisation in La rivedra nell’estasi (With rapture I shall look upon her CD 1 tr.2 part) with his lighthearted portrayal of Ricardo’s frivolousness at Ulrica’s abode in Di tu fedele (tr.13). Then again there’s his ardent declaration of love as he meets Amelia under the gallows (tr.23). It’s some of the best Verdi tenor singing in a generation.

To Bergonzi’s consummate interpretation I must add similar accolades to the realisation be Leontyne Price of Amelia. Her smoky tones can and do rise to lyrical heights in her terror in Ecco l’orrido campo as Amelia arrives to gather the leaves of a plant at the foot of the gallows (tr.21). They express love in the duet as Riccardo arrives (tr.23) whilst also expressing desperation with her plight in Morro, ma prima in grazia with dramatic low notes and a quite astonishing diminuendo at the conclusion of the aria (CD 2 tr.6). No other soprano on record manages these challenges with such finesse, lack of strain and pure expressiveness.

Having bestowed superlatives on the two lovers, what am I left with to describe the other three principals: Oscar, the Page, Ulrica the gypsy and Renato the husband of Amelia? Reri Grist’s Oscar is pert of character and voice, her flexible leggiero soprano perfect for the part. Likewise the young Shirley Verrett takes a lot of beating as Ulrica, singing with a wide variety of tonal expression, steady sonorous tone and good legato. As Renato Robert Merrill, who was often criticised for vocal blandness compared with Gobbi’s capacity for vocal characterisation, sings with rock-solid tone that we would welcome in the present dearth of true Verdi baritones. His act 1 Alla vita che t’arride (CD 1 tr.4) is lyrically expressive whilst he is also able to convince in the dramatically vehement Eri tu as Renato accuses his wife and regrets the bliss he has lost (CD 2 tr.8). The lesser roles of the two co-assassins are adequately taken by Ezio Flagello and Ferruccio Mazzoli.

On the rostrum the often under-rated Erich Leinsdorf conducts with passion and a good feel for Verdian line. The chorus, that of the Rome Opera in all but name, (contracted elsewhere) are vibrant and involved in music that is embedded in their bones. Whilst not having the depth of image of the later Sony recorded operas in this series this recording has stood up well to the passing of time with the voices clear and forward in a bright acoustic.

Robert J Farr

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