This DVD is aimed at Domingo fans, with good reason. It is the television film made in 1975 of The Royal Opera’s deeply traditional staging by Otto Schenk of the Swedish version of Un ballo in maschera, that is, with the lead tenor role as King Gustavus III rather than the Riccardo of the so-called Boston version.
Technically the film is no great shakes, in an adequate Standard Definition in 4:3 screen format, with English surtitles only, and these are suggestive of what’s going on rather than a full translation of the Italian. In the darkness of Act Two, sometimes you only see the whites of eyes, hands and faces, which is rather surreal, and the sound, again adequate, is without a great deal of presence.
Set against all this, however, is a particularly gripping performance that keeps getting beneath the skin of Verdi’s tragedy of the monarch who falls in love with the wife of his beloved friend Anckarström, who, as foretold by the fortune-teller Madame Arvidson, is the man who kills him.
Plácido Domingo was thirty-four at the time and is in glorious voice, looks the romantic regal part, complements the grandeur of the staging and was in complete command of how to characterise with his voice. As Amelia, Katia Ricciarelli looks wonderful in Jürgen Rose’s sumptuous gowns and floats a voice full of passion and vulnerability, and her love-duet with Domingo’s Gustavus is magnificent.
The king’s closest friend and eventual nemesis Anckarström is sung by Piero Cappuccilli with an unnerving grasp of the process of love turning to hatred giving the role a sort of Mafiosi inscrutability. His beautiful suave baritone and elegant motionless presence suggests a huge emotional range, fully expressed in the misery of ‘Eri tu’ in Act Three.
Reri Grist sparkles in the breeches role of Oscar, the king’s page, she supplies a sinister top to the Act One quintet and is on top form in the coloratura of Act Three’s ‘Di che fulgor’. Elizabeth Bainbridge turns up the doom volume as a majestic Madame Arvidson.
Claudio Abbado guides the singers through Verdi’s amalgam of melodrama, the supernatural and raw passion with a flexibility that keeps the music close to the drama and makes it sound more than usually through-composed. Despite technical misgivings, this DVD will stay with you.