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We present here the 1940 broadcast matinee performance given on 14 December from the Metropolitan Opera of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, an opera which, at the time, had been somewhat neglected.
I've had the privilege of working from sonically excellent, previously-unused source material which, despite some higher than usual surface noise, has preserved the voices and orchestra superbly for a recording of this vintage.
This continues our recent series of new transfers of Met Opera broadcasts from the early 1940s in unprecedented sound quality, recorded onto 16-inch transcription discs by NBC from a direct line feed. I'm sure it won't be the last!
Amelia - Zinka Milanov
Riccardo - Jussi Björling
Renato - Alexander Sved
Ulrica - Bruna Castagna
Oscar - Stella Andreva
Samuel - Norman Cordon
Tom - Nicola Moscona
Silvano - Arthur Kent
Judge - John Carter
Servant - Lodovico Oliviero
Dance - Douglas Coudy
Dance - Alexis Kosloff
Dance - Josef Levinoff
Dance - Mary Smith
Dance - Lillian Moore
Dance - Mary Sigler
Dance - Paul Sweeney
Dance - Lilla Volkova
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by Ettore Panizza
Broadcast performance of 14 December, 1940
XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Jussi Björling
1 RADIO Introduction (0:23)
2 Act 1, Scene 1 - Prelude (3:52)
3 Posa in pace (1:33)
4 Amici miei...soldati - La rivedrà nell' estasi (3:51)
5 Il cenno mio de là (2:16)
6 Alla vita che t'arride (3:00)
7 Il primo giudice (1:26)
8 Cavatina: Volta la terrea (1:55)
9 Signori oggi d'Ulrica...Orni cura si doni al diletto (2:59)
10 Act 1, Scene 2 - Zitti, l'incanto non dessi turbare (3:38)
11 Arrivo il primo...Villano, dà indietro (2:45)
12 Su fatemi largo (3:17)
13 Che v'agita cosi (5:20)
14 Su profetessa monta il treppiè (4:07)
15 Chi voi siate l'audace parola (6:14)
16 Finale - Finisci il vaticinio (4:11)
1 Act 2 - Prelude - Ecco l'orrido campo (9:28)
2 Teco io sto...Gran Dio (9:08)
3 Ahimè!...s'appressa alcun! (4:54)
4 Seguitemi!...Mio Dio! (7:42)
5 Act 3, Scene 1 - A tal colpo è nulla il pianto (6:41)
6 Alzati! Là tuo figlio a te concede riveder (6:58)
7 Siam soli...udite (8:14)
8 Alle danze questa sera (6:03)
9 Forse la soglia attinse (2:28)
10 Act 3, Scene 2 - Ah! Dessa è là (Festa de Ballo e Coro) (5:37)
11 Fervono amori e danze (1:24)
12 Ah! Perchè qui!.. fuggite (5:16)
13 Finale - Ella è pura, in braccio a morte (5:36)
If fortune had smiled on us we would have two very good recordings of Jussi Björling in Un Ballo in Maschera. He was scheduled to appear in the 1954 radio broadcast with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra but had to pull out due to laryngitis. Illness also forced him to pull out of the Decca recording in Rome in the summer of 1960 opposite Birgit Nilsson. Just a few months later he was dead. Opera fans were thus denied the chance to hear Jussi Björling in one of his signature roles. The Decca recording in particular would have captured him in excellent stereo. Yet all is not lost. This broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in December 1940 captures Björling at his youthful best, not yet 30 years old, singing with all the passion one could want in a live performance.
Although Björling had sung his first Ballo in Sweden in 1934, this was actually only his 6th performance as Riccardo. The Met mounted a new production of the opera, having neglected to perform it for the previous 24 years, and granted it the honour of opening night. This was the first of Björling’s eleven Met broadcasts, and therefore the large domestic broadcast audience of more than ten million (plus the international audience listening via shortwave in Latin America and Europe), heard not only an unfamiliar opera, but also a new tenor. The reviews following opening night were complimentary, praising Björling’s ‘lyricism’ and ‘style’, and indeed the role suits his bright instrument perfectly. He is reserved where the role requires it, but often vocally impassioned in a way that belies his undeserved reputation as ‘cold’. His Amelia is Zinka Milanov, well-known to the Met audience and regularly partnered with Björling by record companies in the 1950s. The two occasionally sang together in concerts and Toscanini had used them as soloists in the Verdi Requiem less than a month before this broadcast of Ballo. Her strong vibrant soprano provides a lovely counterpoint to Björling’s burnished tone, and the big duet in act 3 is a particular highlight (N.B. this Met production split Ballo into 5 acts).
Singing Renato is Hungarian baritone Alexander Sved, indeed the opening night performance was his Met debut. His ‘Eri tu’ is large-voiced and nobly sung. He had performed with Björling in Vienna in 1936 and 1937 and recordings of part of those performances survive. Italian mezzo, Bruna Castagna, sings Ulrica and was heard often at the Met as Carmen, Amneris and Azucena. She retired in 1945 at the age of just 48. English soprano Stella Andreva, singing Oscar, appeared at the Met in a variety of light soprano roles such as Musetta, Papagena, and the Woodbird between 1937 and 1942. She sang similar roles at Covent Garden, but in Stockholm she sang Gilda to Björling’s Duke, Rosina to his Almaviva, and sang Juliette in his very first Romeo et Juliette. In 1946 she performed on Broadway in Lehar’s Yours is my heart.
Conductor Ettore Panizza performed all over the world and was a house conductor at the Met between 1934 and 1942. More than 40 of his Met performances were broadcast including the 1935 La Traviata with Rosa Ponselle, and the same year’s Simon Boccanegra with Lawrence Tibbett.
The broadcast was recorded onto 16-inch transcription discs by NBC from a direct line feed. The quality of materials used had clearly improved since the early days of NBC transcription discs and every single broadcast from this 1940-41 season, the first sponsored by the Texas Company, is preserved.
Review of Oscar Thompson in the New York Sun:
An able and elaborate, if scarcely distinguished, revival of Verdi's "Masked Ball" opened the Metropolitan Opera's fifty-sixth season of opera last night. The house was full, with the limit in standees. Because of new revenue derived from the boxes and from additional seats in what was formerly the grand tier, receipts were reported higher than on any recent opening night.
In the attention given to the singers and the stage there was nothing to bear out the legend that on opening nights it is chiefly the audience that matters, not the opera. "Un Ballo in Maschera" is not the best nor the most exciting of Verdi's twenty-seven stage works, but it has its points. They were recognized and applauded, if not tumultously. The one demonstration of consequence was that which greeted Alexander Sved, the company's new Hungarian baritone, after his singing of "Eri tu".
Mr. Sved doubtless caused some genuine commotion-he is the first big-voiced baritone the Metropolitan has had since Titta Ruffo departed. Last night he presented some slight resemblances to Ruffo, not only in weight of the upper tones, but in the "growl" of his production. "Eri tu" was his best achievement. Elsewhere-and even there-he was not always mindful of the melodic line and was given to a variety of explosive utterances that often blurred both the quality and the pitch. As an actor he was elementary but virile. The railbirds will probably like him immensely in the more stentorian parts. Those who admire refined singing may have their reservations.
Mr. Björling was the more consistently good vocalist of the evening, exhibiting just those qualities of legato lyricism that Mr. Sved sacrificed in his quest of strenuous emphasis.