VERDI: Un ballo in maschera
Leontyne Price, soprano (Amelia), Carlo Bergonzi, tenor (Riccardo), Robert Merrill, baritone (Renato), Mignon Dunn, mezzo-soprano (Ulrica), Roberta Peters, soprano (Oscar), Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, Conductor.
MYTO 2 MCD 043.295 (2 Discs). F (ADD) TT: 2:11:43

Un ballo in maschera, one of Verdi’s finest middle period works, has fared quite well on discs, with several first-rate studio recordings. My personal favorite is the RCA recording, made in Rome in June of 1966. It features a superb cast of singers at or very near the absolute primes of their careers—Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett, and Reri Grist. The recorded sound is first-rate, and conductor Erich Leinsdorf presides over a performance that does justice to the varied emotional palette of this fascinating work.

This superb Ballo was reissued on compact discs as part of the mid-priced RCA Victor Opera Series. For reasons I am hard-pressed to understand, the recording is currently out of print. It is a recording that should not be out of the catalogue for even a second. Here’s a plea for RCA to reissue it as soon as possible, preferably with deluxe “Living Stereo” repackaging. In the meantime, there is this MYTO reissue of a Met broadcast of Ballo that took place 26 February 1966, just a few months before the Rome sessions. It features three of the principals from the RCA recording—Bergonzi, Price, and Merrill. On this occasion, each is in every bit as fine voice as the studio effort. In other words, each sings with surpassing tonal beauty and security, throughout all registers. It’s hard to imagine these roles better vocalized. Bergonzi is magnificent in the RCA studio Ballo. But in my opinion, this Met broadcast surpasses that considerable achievement. Although he was someone who hardly cut the most imposing figure on stage, Bergonzi loved to perform and interact with his audience. For my money, Bergonzi’s live performances always contained an extra degree of passion and sparkle. That is certainly the case in this Met broadcast. From the very first entrance, Bergonzi is fully engaged, delivering his opening recitative crisply and with great style. From there, the performance goes from strength to strength, with the tenor embodying all of the aspects that make Riccardo (here, Gustavo, as the production reverts to the original Swedish setting) one of Verdi’s most compelling tenor creations—a benevolent leader, a passionate but guilt-ridden lover, and (rare among Verdi tenors) someone with an engaging sense of humor. As in the studio recording, Bergonzi’s high notes ring out thrillingly. His mastery of dynamics, including a stunning diminuendo immediately before Riccardo’s death is the work of a consummate artist and technician. A wonderful performance by a master singer in one of his best roles, and at the height of his powers.
Likewise, Leontyne Price is in glorious form, and even more passionate than in the studio recording. To hear Price and Bergonzi’s voices soar together in the great Act II love duet is what grand opera is all about. As in the case of Bergonzi’s Riccardo, Price’s Amelia is a fine souvenir of a treasured artist.

Likewise, Robert Merrill is more dramatically involved in this Met broadcast than in the RCA studio recording. Unfortunately, that extra involvement often manifests itself in the explosions of sound Merrill often substituted for a more subtle (and for me, more effective) means of expression. But there is no denying the uniquely glorious, rich sound of Merrill’s voice and, for the better part, the musical way he uses it. Mignon Dunn as Ulrica and Roberta Peters as Oscar more than hold their own against the strong competition of RCA’s Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and the Met Orchestra give a propulsive and compelling account of this marvelous work.
The mono sound of the Met broadcast is, however, not the equal of RCA’s beautiful stereo recording—somewhat boxy, with a hint of distortion. So, if you already own the RCA Ballo, it may be a luxury to invest in this MYTO set. Still, I think fans of Bergonzi and Price will enjoy hearing these singers rise to the occasion in “the heat of the moment” to surpass their exceptional studio efforts. And for those who don’t already own the RCA set, I’d certainly consider adding the MYTO Ballo to your collection. Bergonzi’s Riccardo, Price’s Amelia, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Merrill’s Renato, are performances for the ages.

K.M. (October 2004)