Un ballo in maschera on DVD (long)

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La Donna Mobile

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Apr 6, 2005, 5:54:12 PM4/6/05
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Last week I jumped for joy when I saw a new version of Un ballo in maschera was available. Its dropping through the letter box this morning put a positive spring in my step. I lurve Ballo. Indeed, if Otello hadn't gone and written Verdi, I would say that this is definitely my favourite of his operas, and could put up a cogent, if necessarily disputable, case for it being his best.

I already have a version of it on video from Covent Garden in 1975, which is intensely frustrating, and also a video from La Scala in the last year or two, which has its merits. The La Scala one I have only watched once or maybe twice, and not for a while, so I can't really offer a sensible critique.

But I have just watched the Stuttgart 1990 DVD and I think it's gorgeous. To some extent my comments are made in reference to the 1975 Covent Garden, of which I have provided detailed impressions elsewhere.

The first thing that strikes me is the staging. I hated the staging as seen in the CG, even though I know some of the problems relate to the relatively primitive technology of filming - or lighting - the stage for TV back then. But my main criticism was the sheer boredom of the staging and the appalling acting of all but Placido Domingo and Reri Grist. Most of the other characters,  from the other leads to the chorus,  just stood and delivered. I tried to figure out how I would stage it, but couldn't really think of anything that wouldn't destroy the storyline.

So this Schlesinger production was a mighty relief - very much staging it as the libretto - and music - dictate, with some wonderful details - quite some grotesques in Ulrica's cave, the occasional silent  appearance of Amelia and Renato's son as appropriate, and so on. The change from Gustavo's soliloquy in his study to the Masked Ball must be one of the more difficult scene changes to execute whilst the music is still playing, but this was handled marvellously with a revolving stage. I have to say that the actual ball scene was a bit unsumptious but I did like the fact that Gustavo and Amelia met outside for their final passionate duet - sort of reminded me of ball-attending days, right down to the stone cases leading down to the lake. I also liked the masks - not some pathetic out-of-a-Christmas cracker piece of cardboard with two holes cut out for the eyes that wouldn't fool a small child, but proper masks that they held with their hands, as shown in Francesco da Mosta's wonderful documentary on Venice, or, indeed, in Adam and the Ants' envelope-pushing Prince Charming video.

In fact I just loved the staging.

The acting and singing. Well, Sumi Jo was good as Oscar. I do love Oscar - definitely up there with Cherubino and above Ottavian, IMO, as trouser roles go. At times her voiced seemed drowned by the orchestra but the colatura bits were excellent. Acting fine, without being amazing. Leo Nucci played Renato. I am not a huge Nucci fan, thinking of him as serviceable and reliable, rather than anything special. And, I have to say, I did not think his singing anything like as beautiful as that of Piero Capuccilli, but his interpretation of the role was deeper, and enabled me to understand a few things that had puzzled me. He seemed at first to be an inconsequential man, just a loyal retainer, but hurt by Amelia's betrayal he was goaded to anger - real anger, that was chilling and frightening. She made her appeal to see her son, and, despite his harsh words, it became clear that she had moved him to compassion.

The absolutely worst part of the CG version was Katia Ricciarelli, who was at best, irritating, and when she was singing of her deep heartbreak and moral dilemma sounded for all the world as if she had a bad case of PMS. In this version, Amelia was Josephine Barstow. I felt she had the right degree of vulnerability and really conveyed that torture of being in forbidden love. There's a bit where she basically sings unintelligible words - at the end of the duet in the gallows field, and it recurs later on - in Renato's study and at the ball. I did so like the way she did it.

And Placido - my Placi...Well, I have to say, of all the videos, DVDs, CDs etc that I have of him, this is possibly him at his least impressive. Vocally, at any rate. Nothing can stop my heart going 'boom boom boom'. But I felt that compared to 1975, his Di' tu se fedele is disappointing, without the full blooded laddishness. And in Ma se m'è forza perderti he seemed to be straining just a little bit to get those, uh-hum, higher notes. However, in Act 2, I really enjoy the burnished colour of his voice, and throughout, he just oozes sexiness, and in the final scene, that fabulous death scene, I had one of those moments I often get with him - when I am startled at just how beautiful and chocolate-like his voice is at its baritonal richest

There is something about the story of Ballo that intrigues me. I suppose I have always been a bit of a one for developing crushes on powerful men, and I like the idea of this man, so powerful, and yet, so weak because of his impossible love for not just a married woman, but the wife of his best friend. I try and work out whether Gustavo and Amelia actually got it together down and dirty. I think the music says they did;  he swears before God as he dies that they didn't. I suppose that would lead to the eternal damnation of his immortal soul, but how honourable and what an ultimate sacrifice, to do that to save her honour, her marriage and quite possibly her life. I also wonder of the juxtaposition of the seemingly sincere respect paid by the ordinary people, and the lingering resentment of the plotters - I like Verdi's use of bass voices to portray the plotters. I think in general it's a great study of how to push right to the line that separates high drama, melodrama even, from parody. The baddies could have been pantomime baddies, the death scene a shabby shocker, but somehow Verdi's good taste holds them back this side of the line.

But ultimately, it's the music, and this is a musical treat. Lyrical melody throughout, and not, to my ears, one mis-step with the orchestration. The orchestra is used to set the scene, and to  portray emotion and drama over and above that conveyed in the words or merely in the vocal line. What I  think is a hallmark of this particular opera is the oft-used device of having the soloists in trio or quartet, with or without chorus, singing quite different words and tunes all simultaneously in a way that doesn't just work but gives it an extra something. Oh yeah, the chorus. Whilst lacking choral showstoppers like Nabucco, Trovatore or Aida, I find the choral writing delightful, especially at the end of Acts 1 and Act 3.

This DVD has Solti has the conductor. A lot of people don't rate Solti as a Verdian conductor, but I have never had any problems with him.

I would recommend this DVD, although if you want Placi at his best, the CG is preferable - for that, and that only.

I'm now getting more and more excited about the new production at Covent Garden next week, with Alvarez, Mattilla, and Hampson, plus Oscar sung by Camilla Tilling (I keep over hearing conversations where real live people rave about her, so that should be interesting). And in due course I shall acquire a version starring Pav in the fortnightly series of 'A season of Opera on DVD' that is, as we speak, backlogging on my coffee table. I shall watch it with an open mind, but I really really have fundamental problems with watching Pav's 'acting' that then shuts my ears to what the voice is doing.






-- 
http://www.madmusingsof.me.uk/weblog/
http://www.geraldine-curtis.me.uk/photoblog/

serg...@yahoo.com

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Apr 7, 2005, 7:15:38 AM4/7/05
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Well I happen to like Ricciarelli in CG and in the MET as well. Without
even watching the new DVD, she probably looks the part better and sings
better than Barstow (specially at the time the videos were recorded,
Barstow was already on the way down). But Ricciarelli is somewhat
controversial because some really "hate" her vocal production, but it
is the first I heard anyone complain about her acting.

La Donna Mobile wrote:
> Last week I jumped for joy when I saw a new version of Un ballo in
> maschera
> <http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007X9T8E/madmusinofme-21>

> was available. ...

alci...@aol.com

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Apr 7, 2005, 12:46:12 PM4/7/05
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I recall, waaaay back in the 70s, seeing the (in)famous Goeran Gentele
production on PBS, with Ragnar Ulfung and Aase Nordmo Løvberg. This
production was sung in Swedish IIRC, and went to great pains to show
Gustav as a mincing effeminate type who even seems to flirt with Oscar
(so why does he sing his big love-duet with Amelia?) I have read that
the historical Gustav was homosexual, and yet have read alternate views
that he was not, just a rather effete and hyper-exciteable fellow whose
detractors were quick to interpret his characteristics in the "wrong"
way. I was a wee lad when I saw this, had just fallen madly in love
with the opera via the Leinsdorf recording, and the concept seemed a
little pretentious, but I remember it being carried out by all with
great skill and commitment. Is this film (which was in
black-and-white) available today? I'd love to see it again.

Hans Christian Hoff

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Apr 7, 2005, 3:23:33 PM4/7/05
to Mike Richter
alci...@aol.com wrote:
> I recall, waaaay back in the 70s, seeing the (in)famous Goeran Gentele
> production on PBS, with Ragnar Ulfung and Aase Nordmo L�vberg. This

> production was sung in Swedish IIRC, and went to great pains to show
> Gustav as a mincing effeminate type who even seems to flirt with Oscar
> (so why does he sing his big love-duet with Amelia?) I have read that
> the historical Gustav was homosexual, and yet have read alternate views
> that he was not, just a rather effete and hyper-exciteable fellow whose
> detractors were quick to interpret his characteristics in the "wrong"
> way. I was a wee lad when I saw this, had just fallen madly in love
> with the opera via the Leinsdorf recording, and the concept seemed a
> little pretentious, but I remember it being carried out by all with
> great skill and commitment. Is this film (which was in
> black-and-white) available today? I'd love to see it again.
>

Actually it was a Swedish TV production, I believe from the early
1960ies. I believe Gustavos sexual preferences is undecided still; may
be he preferred to have none? His queen, with whom he hardly was on
speaking terms, however gave birth to an heir, who was not at the time
considered illegitimate.

He was renowned, however, for his championship of the arts, and
particularly as the patron of the Kungliga Teatern (Royal Theatre)i.e.
the Royal Swedish Opera.

I also was very taken in by the perfomance. Amelia and Riccardo/Gustavo
were both Norwegians (Loevberg and Ulfung); I remember the Oscar of
Birgit Nordin (the Queen of the Night in the Bergman Flute) as the most
ravishing young lady I had then seen for a while. Renato was Hugo Hasslo
(?) and Arne Tyrèn was one of the conspirators.

May be Mike Richter knows if there is a VHS or DVD version on the market.

Regards

Hans

stephenmead

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Apr 8, 2005, 5:02:45 AM4/8/05
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"Hans Christian Hoff" <hch...@broadpark.no> wrote in message
news:425588B5...@broadpark.no...

I believe Gustavos sexual preferences is undecided still; may
> be he preferred to have none? His queen, with whom he hardly was on
> speaking terms, however gave birth to an heir, who was not at the time
> considered illegitimate.
>
>
Charles Osborne in his book The Operas of Verdi states flatly that Gustavus
was homosexual. This website about gay people in history says he was
generally believed to be so and "his own mother clearly assued he was".


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