Recorded 4-9 September, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Producer: Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett
It may come as a surprise to find that this 1956 recording of Un Ballo in Maschera was the first time Callas was singing the role of Amelia complete, and that she would not sing it on stage until the following year at La Scala in a lavish new production by Margarita Wallman, her only stage performances of the role. As is her wont, she completely inhabits the role and so deep is her identification with it that one would assume she had been singing it for years.
Amelia is a transitional role in Verdi’s canon, looking forward to Verdi’s later style, but still with a requirement for many of the vocal graces one expects from a bel canto singer, most of them glossed over or ignored by technically less accomplished sopranos. Callas’s voice and technique were well suited to it, her dark timbre uniquely telling, filling out its phrases with true spinto tone. Amelia’s very first phrases are sung with breadth and a deep legato, and yet she executes the little turns Verdi adds to indicate Amelia’s nervous state of mind nimbly and with accuracy, and how beautifully she spins out the arch of the great melody at Consentimi, o Signore.
Act II finds her at her very best, first in the great scena that opens the act, including a secure top C at its close. But note how she phrases onwards and through the top note, so that the final cadenza and its quiet close become the focal point of the aria. Note also how she observes the sforzando markings at Deh mi reggi, whilst at the same time maintaining her impeccable legato. The ensuing duet with Riccardo (one of Verdi’s greatest inspirations) has an erotic charge not heard in any other version, save possibly the live one from the following year; who but Callas can invest the line Ebben si t’amo with so many conflicting emotions? Throughout this recording her voice, rich and dark hued, is more responsive than that of Eugenia’s Ratti’s light voiced soubrette. In the ensemble at the end of the first scene of Act III, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills, and hear in the Oath Quartet just before, how she whips through a series of triplets which take her from a sustained top Bb to D and Eb at the bottom of the stave with dazzling accuracy. This is Callas at her best, both vocally and dramatically.
The rest of the cast could hardly be bettered. Di Stefano may not be the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but it is still one of his best roles, sung with his own brand of slancio and lashings of charm. Gobbi is superb as Renato. Others may better him in the cantabile of Alla vita che t’arride, but few have expressed so eloquently the anguish and conflicts at the heart of Eri tu. Barbieri is a formidable Ulrica, and Ratti a pert, if occasionally too bright-voiced, Oscar. We also get a nicely ironic pair of conspirators in Maionica and Zaccaria.
Votto is, well, a good accompanist, and nowhere near as propulsive as Gavazzeni at La Scala the following year. Serafin would have been the better conductor for the job, but Callas was in a funk with him for agreeing to record La Traviata with Stella instead of her.
This was one of the few La Scala recordings not produced by Walter Legge, though the La Boheme which preceded it was. I have no idea why this should have been the case. I originally owned the first UK reissue of the set on LP, and later the 1987 EMI Angel CD issue. Callas always sounded well on this set, but it is Ratti who sounds less shrill on the Warner than she did on the previous CD incarnation. Either that or my ears have become more forgiving.
I would never want to be without the live Un Ballo in Maschera from the following year, possibly the last time we hear Callas singing with such power and freedom, but this recording remains one of the most recommendable studio sets around, despite its mono sound. The opera was recently the subject of Radio3’s Building a Library programme. Final choice was eventually narrowed down to Muti with Domingo and Arroyo and this Callas set. If Roger Parker eventually plumped for Muti, that was because of the better, more modern sound and the greater refinement of Domingo’s Riccardo. However he comforted himself by making the Callas recording his historical choice, leaving him the best of both worlds.