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Surprise, surprise. I had some hopes for this "Ballo," because it's conducted by the underrated Riccardo Chailly, in my opinion one of the best opera/symphonic conductors ever. I've never heard a less than stellar performance under his baton, and he's now 35 years into his career. However, I wasn't familiar with the singers, and the staging (particularly on the costume side) was widely denigrated, so that tempered my expectations.
Perhaps those modest expectations were a good thing, because they allowed for this performance to thoroughly wow me. I've listened to a multitude of "Ballo" recordings over the years, and I think this one might just - taken as a whole - rank among the best.
The vocalism is exceptional from all the leads.
The tenor, Massimiliano Pisapia, has some stiff competition. Riccardo was one of Luciano Pavarotti's signature roles, and it was also a very good fit for the lesser known Carlo Bergonzi. But Pisapia more than holds his own. His singing is faultless and full of shading and passion.
Amelia is essayed by Chiara Taigi, and she's equally good. There are a few somewhat raw high notes (par for the course for sopranos who take on this challenging part), but the rest of her singing is beautiful, exhibiting a surprisingly rich lower register. And her commitment is absolute - she even sheds tears at certain moments.
As her husband, Renato, Franco Vassallo is a worthy successor to mid-to-late-century Italian baritones like Ettore Bastianini and Piero Cappuccilli. He boasts a very exciting, bronze-toned voice with all the money notes. Early on, his acting seems a bit placid, but later it becomes evident that this is to set off his seething anger once he realizes he's been wronged by his wife and trusted friend Riccardo.
Anna Maria Chiuri as Ulrica is thrilling in her big scene (she seems to be having a ball, or "ballo" in this case), and Eun Yee You chirps some lovely sounds as the ever-perky page Oscar.
Usually there's a weak link somewhere, but not here. The Leipzig orchestra and chorus provide fantastic support. As expected, Chailly's conducting is ideally paced, propelling the opera forward from beginning to end without a false step along the way. It could hardly be more exciting. The booklet notes say: "There is nothing conciliatory about this approach, nothing calming or placatory ... generally avoiding all sense of cantabilita and producing a performance ... through the lens of modernism, a view that certainly does the work no harm." I agree.
This approach is reflected in the severe modern sets and wildly stylized costumes. It's a Brutalist "Ballo." I can see why some would find this off-putting, but it didn't bother me at all, particularly in this opera. "Ballo" has already seen much tinkering in terms of setting (now seemingly a standard practice for modern-day directors trying, often unsuccessfully, to impress); it was originally intended to be set in Stockholm before Verdi changed it to British colonial Boston to appease the censors, and subsequent productions have switched it back. It doesn't really matter where it's set, because the opera's focus is on the central characters' relationships. Although I can't say that the sets and costumes are consistent in approach or enhance the effectiveness of the drama, they certainly add visual interest.
This performance was filmed in 2005, but it could have been yesterday. The picture and sound quality are superbly clear (be sure to switch to DTS 5.1 from the PCM 2.0 default in order to benefit from the full dynamic range and immersive sound). In fact, the bass is particularly punchy on this disc, evident even if you don't have a subwoofer.
Finally, this is currently one of the least expensive opera Blu-ray discs available, making it an even easier recommendation.
I was provided with a review copy of this particular disc, although I've purchased many EuroArts discs (as well as those of other classical music labels) over the years.