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CD Review

Giuseppe Verdi

Un Ballo in Maschera

  • Ethel Semser (Amelia)
  • Joachim Kerol (Riccardo)
  • Jean Borthayre (Renato)
  • Loly Valdarnini (Oscar)
  • Marie-Therese Cahn (Ulrica)
Paris Philharmonic Chorus
Paris Radio Orchestra/Rene Leibowitz
ReDiscovery RP010/011 ADD monaural 2CD-Rs: 65:08, 56:59

There are two and a half good reasons to hear this recording, if you're a big Ballo fan. First is the singing of Jean Borthayre, the only "name" among the singers. His handsome, plangent voice makes Renato into a sympathetic character; he has the most firmly developed sense of Verdian style, and I'd be glad to hear him in this role anytime. The second is Marie-Therese Cahn's unusual Ulrica. Most contraltos or mezzos use Ulrica's music as an excuse for tons of campy chest tone and turn the role into a parody of itself. Cahn goes in a completely different direction. Appropriately, her first solo is sung as if in a trance, and with the purest tone she can muster. Later, when the dark spirit comes to her, her voice beams with happiness and spiritual fulfillment. I recommend Cahn's Ulrica to any singer who thinks the possibilities for this role have been exhausted.

The half-reason is Leibowitz's conducting, which really has its moments. Much of his tempi are unusually slow… that is, when they are not unusually fast. The end of Act One is a panic, and I was amazed that the Parisian brass players were able to keep up with him and still play cleanly. On the other hand, his willingness to slow things down invests passages that tend to get thrown away in other recordings with unusual dignity. Unfortunately, there also are some sections of the score (Amelia's Act Two unveiling, for example) in which Leibowitz lets the performance die. Curious.

Kerol's Riccardo is ghastly. Did this singer have a professional career? Where do I begin? He can't stay on pitch, he scoops between notes, his Italian is awful (he seems to have some kind of lisp, which turns words such as "ciel" into "shyel"), his high notes are painfully strained, and he consistently sounds like a petulant older gentleman – more like Doctor Caius than Riccardo. His persistent chuckling in "È scherzo, od è follia" sounds like a neurological disorder. As Amelia, Ethel Semser is better, but in no way notable, except for the ill-advised shriek she lets out at the climax of "Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa." Valdarnini is a rather serious Oscar, even in the coloratura. For some reason, she loses the second half of her Act One aria, perhaps in recognition of her ungainly passagework. More shocking, the last part of lottery scene is completely cut. Oscar comes to Renato's home to invite him to the masked ball, Renato and the conspirators rub their hands together, and the scene ends abruptly, without Verdi's fabulous quintet. Why? The chorus is mushy and unengaged. The orchestra, on the other hand, plays rather well.

ReDiscovery has used a reel tape master for this release, which was recorded in the early 1950s (I think) and released in the United States on the Livingston label. The sound is clear and alive, although it would be hard to find a recording with less theatrical ambience than this one. There is some pre- and post-echo, but it is not too bad.

This is a new release in ReDiscovery's minimalist "Paperback" series, which means that there are no booklet notes at all, and not even a jewel box. Still, the price is right: $10 for these two CDRs, postage included. ReDiscovery releases are available over the Internet at www.rediscovery.us.

Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet