A Masked Ball
Giuseppe Verdi, music and Antonio Somma, libretto
English translation by Amanda Holden
Chandos 3116 (2)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry, conductor
In an era where major record companies seldom produce complete opera sets (and those they do release tend to be recorded live), one company has found a market for studio recordings. Chandos now approaches its fiftieth complete opera set under the auspices of Peter Moore's Foundation support for opera in English (those last words also being the name of the Chandos series). Verdi's Un ballo in maschera recently emerged from this series, under the title A Masked Ball.
So should the recording-starved opera lover rejoice? That depends on what one is starved for. One person might hunger for Italian food and be satisfied with a bowl of Chef-Boyardee, steaming from the microwave. Many another might consider that an abomination.
This A Masked Ball, for these ears, comes tinned and heavy with watery tomato sauce. The first misfire is the orchestral performance under the unidiomatic conducting of David Parry. An experienced leader, Parry has many fine recordings of rare Italian opera available on Opera Rara. He knows the idiom. For whatever reason, here we have a flat, uninspired reading where the climaxes feel forced and the lyrical sections grow tired. The lifeless sound doesn't help — everyone performs in a squeaky-clean vacuum of an acoustic space, as if each individual musician and singer were recorded in dozens of locations and the results all spliced together later.
Then there's the cast. Fresh ingredients being key to a delicious Italian meal, perhaps Chandos could have looked elsewhere than to Dennis O'Neill and Susan Patterson for the leads. Both have had distinguished careers, but both voices sound tired, warbly, and effortful. Perhaps Amelia can sound strained, as the poor lady has hardly a single happy moment in the whole opera, but Gustavus III (Chandos uses the original setting, not the American substitute meant to satisfy nervous censors) should be full of life and passion. O'Neill's joyless performance pretty much takes this recording out of the running right from the get-go.
Anthony Michaels Moore has years of good singing left, although his baritone boasts rough edges that make his portrayal of Count Anckarstroem rather an obvious heavy upon his entrance. By act three, he is one scary Count. American Jill Grove does well enough by Ulrike, and Linda Richardson manages to keep Oscar bouncy and fun and not hyper and annoying.
However, for an opera of such rich Italian passion and melancholy, whether set in Sweden or the American new world, the English translation is all wrong. Tidy and well-mannered, it never captures the essence of the Somma text that inspired such glorious music from Verdi. Let one example suffice: the Count's third act aria, Eri tu, becomes Shame on you, who defiled my beloved. Very much Snidely Whiplash. Translator Holden seems to have channeled Henny Youngman at one point, when the Count declares (quite seriously), "Take my wife!" However, he doesn't add, "please!"
Not a few of the Opera in English releases have earned glowing reviews, and Rossini's A Thieving Magpie, released last year, deserved those it received, as a recent hearing attests. Unfortunately, this A Masked Ball raises all the old questions of why such a series is necessary when most any opera performance — whether a recording with libretto, a live one with surtitles, or a DVD with subtitles — can offer the glories of the original language and a translation that communicates the essence of the drama. But when a fine cast is singing, the issue is moot.
Sadly, the singing on this recording makes the issue very much alive. Better to honor Verdi's masterpiece by finding your favorite recording (one of mine happens to be the one with late Tebaldi and early Pavarotti) and treating oneself to the real Ballo. Like the best authentic Italian food, there is no substitute.