Much as it had been earlier in his career with Rigoletto and La Traviata, Verdi had no end of trouble with the censors when it came to Un ballo in maschera, one of his most popular operas.
After working with Antonio Somma, his chosen librettist for his long-in-the-works Lear, Verdi had to deliver a commission for Naples, so Lear fell by the wayside never to be picked up again. The new work turned out a reworking by Somma of an old libretto for a French opera by Auber titled Le bal masqué of which Verdi made the most although he failed to leave out some of its melodramatic improbabilities.
After being blocked by the Austrian censors that objected to the portrayal of the murder of a King on stage, Verdi had to change the historically accurate setting from 18th century Sweden to 18th century Massachusetts (!) with less than felicitous results. However, Verdi was posthumously vindicated when the proper Swedish setting became the preferred version of the work.
Ultimately the music prevailed, including some fabled ensembles and several show-stopping arias for the tenor, soprano, baritone, and contralto principals. In the recently released Orfeo recording (ORF-C210062) soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, tenor Piotr Beczala, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva acquit themselves quite well, with top honors going to the Amelia (oops, Emilia!) – the Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, a superb Verdian, ample of voice and fiery of temperament, with an even mix of the steel called for in Ecco l’orrido campo and the ensuing duet with Gustaf, and the plangent lyricism required for Morrò, ma prima in grazia.
Nadia Krasteva is a fine Ulrica, definitely more mezzo-soprano than the contralto ideally best suited to the role of the soothsayer. But then, these days true-blue contraltos are rarer than hens’ teeth.
The men in the recording are a mixed bag. Piotr Beczala’s voice has never been one of my favorite ones, especially in the Verdi roles for which I find his grainy sound not Italianate enough. That said I cannot think of many tenors singing today that can move so comfortably into the Verdi canon and sing Forse la soglia attinse… Ma se m’è forza perderti as well as the versatile Beczala can.
The late great Dmitri Hvorostovsky recorded this Ballo roughly a year and a half before his untimely death. While the style and the volcanic high notes were still there, the sheer beauty of his sound had begun to disappear and a tendency to bark some of the angry utterances of the character of Renato started to take the place of singing.
The late Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos leads the Vienna State Opera orchestra with a sure hand, always alert to the give and take asked for by Verdi in this excellent live recording.
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