Callas’s Two Recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia is a role that should probably have figured more in Callas’s career. She sang excerpts as a student, almost got to sing it at La Scala under Toscanini, but actually didn’t tackle the whole role until the recording she made under Antonino Votto in 1956, and after singing it in a lavish new production at La Scala the following year, never sang it again, though she returned to Amelia’s two big solos in the studio in the mid to late 1960s.

We are fortunate that the La Scala live performance was captured in sound, and, though sonically it is not as clear as that on the studio recording, it is one of the best preserved La Scala broadcasts. Common to both the studio and live sets are the La Scala forces, Eugenia Ratti’s Oscar, Callas and Di Stefano. Everything else is different, so which is best?

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First off we note that Gianandrea Gavazzeni on the live set is a much more positive presence than the somewhat prosaic Anotonino Votto. It is testament to his soloists that the Votto recording remains one of the most recommendable of studio sets 60 odd years after its release, but Gavazzeni’s performance is definitely more alive to the drama, and, from that point of view at least, the live performance is preferable. One should also note that the audience is a palpable (and vocal) presence, which some may find distracting. Personally I find it all part of the fun. Though one of the best of Callas’s La Scala broadcasts, it still tends to overload at climaxes. The studio set is in good mono sound.

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Let’s now take the other differences. What I miss most on the live recording is Gobbi’s Renato. Bastianini on the live set was a fine singer, and probably had what we consider more of a Verdi baritone sound, but he is not nearly as imaginative as Gobbi. Bastianini has the more beautiful voice. Gobbi creates the more interesting character. When Gobbi sings the single word “Amelia” at the moment his wife is revealed to be the Duke’s paramour, he invests it with a wealth of conflicting emotions far beyond the scope of the more forthright Bastianini, so, in this respect at least the studio version is preferable. The conspirators on the studio set are also slightly better at vocal word painting than their live counterparts, but the difference is marginal.

Both the Ulricas are excellent, and if I prefer the magnificent Simionato on the live set, my preference is again only marginal. Barbieri is also excellent on the studio set. Eugenia Ratti is a trifle shrill for my liking on both the studio and live sets.

As for Callas and Di Stefano, I’d find it hard to choose between their performances, as they are both in terrific voice on both sets. Di Stefano is not the most aristocratic of Riccardos, but he has bags of personality. In the live set, he can be guilty of playing to the gallery somewhat, but the audience give him a rapturous reception, so who can blame him?

Callas is in magnificent form on both sets, her singing full of incidental details most singers miss, her command of the role’s difficulties staggering. I often wonder why her voice sounds so much fuller and richer in this role than it does on the studio Aida, which was recorded in 1955, the year before the studio set and two years before the live version. Possibly because Amelia is a transitional role, requiring a full compliment of trills and vocal graces of which Callas was a mistress. However it also requires quite a large voice, which is why the vocal niceties of the role are usually glossed over or ignored. Listen to Callas sing in her first scene the arching phrase Consentimi o signore with a pure legato and refulgent tone, whilst perfectly executing the little turn at the end of the phrase that signifies Amelia’s nervous state. Note also that when Amelia mirrors Oscar’s trills in the Oath Scene, it is Callas, not Ratti, who demonstrates perfect trills. It is moments such as these that make Callas stand out from all others.

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A month after the La Scala prima, she was to sing Norma at the Rome Opera at a gala attended by the Italian president. She was unwell and tried to cancel, but, against her better instincts allowed herself to be persuaded by the management to do the performance, as, incredibly, they had not bothered to engage an understudy. During the performance, she felt her voice slipping away from her, and refused to carry on after Act I. This created one of the biggest scandals of her career. The Rome Opera refused to make any announcement on her behalf, and then compounded the problem by cancelling the rest of her contract, even though she had representations from doctors confirming her illness. The press had a field day, even fabricating footage of her supposedly rehearsing in good voice, though the footage was actually from a radio broadcast in 1955. She eventually sued the Rome Opera, a case that was settled entirely in her favour, but the case dragged on for years, and by the time she won the case, the damage done to her personally was irrevocable.

When she returned to La Scala later that year in a revival of Anna Bolena, the La Scala audience greeted her with icy silence, though, as was her wont, by the end of the first performance, she had scored a personal triumph even greater than at the prima the previous year. Unfortunately, when she returned to her villa with Meneghini, it was to find the walls and gates covered and daubed with dog excrement. Is it any wonder she began to doubt whether devoting her life to her art was really worth the trouble? Is it any wonder that the world of the glitterati, empty though it would turn out to be, should suddenly seem so attractive?

After the live La Scala Un Ballo in Maschera, there are of course some stupendous performances to come, the Cologne La Sonnambula, the Dallas Medea, the London and Lisbon La Traviatas for instance, but we rarely hear her sing again with such security, and ease. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but I often wonder if that Rome cancellation, and the fall out from it, was when the pressure of performing, of always having to be the best really started to get to her.

Callas’s Studio Un Ballo in Maschera

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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.