With this performance, we encounter a production of BALLO in its Swedish setting that is old-fashioned in the good sense. Film/stage director John Schlesinger's work has aged well -- better than has his celebrated Covent Garden LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN with the same tenor, which admittedly suffers from a dated performing edition for which the maestro shares blame. In the Salzburg BALLO (taped 28 July 1990), Schlesinger does nothing eccentric, but there are intelligence, clarity and strong intent in his work. He knows he has a good story and he trusts it. William Dudley's sets are good-looking and detailed without being smothering or overwhelming, and there is a dazzling in-sight scene change for the masked ball itself in the final scene. Schlesinger's work with the actors is above average for this period. For a BALLO to look at, this is far ahead of two well-sung earlier entries, the Tokyo '67 with Bergonzi and Stella (VAI) and the Covent Garden '75 conducted by Abbado (Kultur).
This opera must be carried by five singers. Here, two of them are among the best on video; one is very good within certain strictures; one is unexciting but adequate and well schooled, and one is a serious liability. Top honors go to Plácido Domingo's Gustavo and Florence Quivar's Ulrica. The tenor's voice is darker, bulkier and less free than it had been on his video performance with Abbado 15 years earlier, and some tight high-lying passages of the Act III aria suggest it was close to time for him to set this role aside. But this is not the tired-sounding, "managing" Domingo of the Met AÏDA video of a year earlier. The voice has plenty of sap and refulgence, and it is a caring, properly aristocratic performance by an artist with strong command of the stage. On this evening, he supplied most of the great singing, but Florence Quivar came closest to matching him. She is another in a line of distinguished African-American mezzos who could make a meal of Ulrica's single, highly atmospheric scene.
Even with the aid of microphones, Sumi Jo's Oscar can sound underprojected. One misses the point and ping of a Reri Grist, especially in concerted passages where Oscar's brightness should cut through. Jo's femininity is also poorly disguised; she is a decidedly girlish Oscar. She nevertheless impresses as an appealing performer with a fresh, youthful tone and the agility to bring off Verdi's high-wire soprano writing with panache. Nothing much goes wrong with Leo Nucci's Anckarström, his solid grasp of the rudiments of Verdian style rescuing a portrayal not especially memorable or distinctive. He has something of the stolid stage manner of Cappuccilli (for Abbado), but his vocal material and technique are less special.
The major point of contention will be the polarizing Amelia of English soprano Josephine Barstow. This singer and indeed this portrayal have admirers, especially among British reviewers. I find her so ineffective in meeting the requirements of Verdi's music that I wonder what Herbert von Karajan (who cast her) was hearing. Truly stylish exponents -- Callas, Stella, Arroyo, Ricciarelli, Leontyne Price -- phrased Amelia's long lines grandly, elegantly, seamlessly. Barstow is so audibly and visibly preoccupied with the placement of each note that continuity and sweep are quite beyond her. Her rhythms are flabby and approximate, she lacks a working chest register, and the tone throughout her range had grown worn and unattractive in late career. Her vaunted stage intensity and passion strike me as overstatement in the service of camouflaging vocal shortcomings. An overall musical/dramatic arsenal that may still have served her well as Katerina in LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK does not qualify her in Verdi. When she trades the same music with Domingo in their duet, he seems to the manner born, she in over her head. The contrast is cruel.
Sir Georg Solti had saved the day in the initial run of this production a year earlier, when Karajan died in the interim between the studio recording (on DG) and the Salzburg debut in the summer of 1989. For obvious reasons it was important that some world-class maestro be pressed into service, and Solti answered the call...yet one sees why Abbado and Muti were first given the opportunity to decline. Solti's Verdi was always controversial, and I always have sided with the doubters. Here he comes through with expected precision and energy, but he is square and heavy of foot. There is not much warmth, grace, or humor to the reading, and the beguiling shapes that a great Verdi conductor could mold in lyric movements are not clearly realized. The orchestra's quality is never in doubt, and the Viennese do give him a plush, enveloping string sound.
Were the Abbado/Kultur DVD not of mediocre quality in picture and sound, with English subtitles appearing too rarely and saying too little to be of much help, and with a stage show that suggests a budget crisis (although the director comes through with some good behavioral detail), that would be a clear first choice. Its singers are superior to those of the DVD under review in all principal roles except Ulrica. But here we are watching rather than just listening, and so Schlesinger's very good stage production and the better tech credits of 1990 tip the scales in the later Domingo performance's favor. One or the other of the Met DVDs may be competitive for anyone who does not share my aversion to Pavarotti's emoting in close-up (the '80 with Ricciarelli has the better production, while the '91 with Millo is the better recorded). The 1967 Tokyo performance on VAI, its cast led by Bergonzi and Stella, is primitive visually and provincial orchestrally but has some thrilling singing from the leads, who are allowed to be on less than best behavior by an indulgent conductor, to the audience's delight. A 2008 performance from Madrid starring Marcelo Álvarez and Violeta Urmana (Opus Arte) is a handsome show very well shot, but the musical performance is a nonstarter in this company.
A worthy contender should it be licensed for video release is the Met's recent HD broadcast of its striking 2012 David Alden production, with Álvarez, Sondra Radvanovsky, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Kathleen Kim, and Stephanie Blythe all at their best (in one or two cases, better than I thought was within their range). Alden's dream-like, ambiguous take does not define a particular period, but this was a captivating theatrical experience, and its quintet of principal singers would be second only to that on the Abbado DVD. For all but the most abstraction-averse operagoer, it should go immediately to the top of the list.