Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Glitter and Be Vengeful: San Diego Opera’s A Masked Ball



By Erica Miner 

Overheard at the opening night intermission of SD Opera’s glittering production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball: “The music is really good.”

Love and death, jealousy and revenge, assassination and intrigue, culminating in a dazzle of song, dance, and a shower of sparkling gold, this exquisite piece of theater is, in the end, all about the music. Arias, ensembles, choruses, each one more intensely intricate than the last, regale the listener with their sophistication and beauty, until one is at last awash in the sheer sumptuousness of it all. Add in a dream cast, and the final product left the opening night capacity audience at San Diego Opera reeling with delight.

The spotted history that produced this Verdian splendor belies the opera’s magnificence. Verdi, a history buff, was always on the lookout for strong and unusual scenes and situations experienced by characters portraying the complexities of the human spirit; characters who, preferably, were bent on vengeance. Thus the true story of the brutal, politically motivated assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792 fulfilled all of Verdi’s most important criteria. The de rigueur ballet included in French playwright Eugène Scribe’s version of the story, Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué, on which Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma based his 1859 text, was a welcome enhancement, providing the ideal scenario for a dramatic monarchal murder. A perfect storm of historical events, which included an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III and an injunction against depicting royalty on stage, wreaked havoc with Verdi’s deadline to complete his score. Notwithstanding these censors’ strictures, Verdi managed to pull off a masterpiece.

At the center of the extraordinary constellation of singers was Polish tenor Piotr Beczała. Last seen at SDO in his 2010 his debut in La Bohème, Beczała counts among his performance venues the world’s top opera houses and concert halls. In the difficult, aria-rich role of the beleaguered, lovesick king, the tenor’s voice poured from him like liquid gold: he paired his sensuous, exquisite tones, velvet phrasing and subtle dynamic contrasts with a dramatically varied characterization: at first making light of the trouble brewing for him; then showing a sense of fairness in counseling against the racial profiling of an outcast on the fringes of society; and finally throwing caution to the winds for the sake of his love for his people and for the unattainable Amelia.

In a stunning SDO debut as the fatally conflicted Amelia, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova showed mastery of a notoriously problematic role that has defeated many a soprano: the voice must be capable of rising above a heavy Verdi orchestration, yet agile enough to negotiate the tricky florid passages within the arias. In her first time performing the role, Stoyanova succeeded in accomplishing both. Her gorgeous instrument filled in the undulating vocal lines with ample sound and breadth, never seeming unwieldy, and she adeptly carried off the technical passages without missing a single note. Her vocal dexterity in the second act aria, “Ma dall'arido stelo” never failed; even in the climactic high “C” the sound remained focused, unfaltering, and beautifully pointed.

That these two astonishing artists have performed together before was strikingly evident in the highlight of the evening: their passionate duet, “Teco io sto… Gran Dio!” Their voices were as perfectly matched as a finely tuned world-class Stradivarius complemented with an exquisitely blended Pinot Nero.

In an inspired bit of luxury casting, internationally acclaimed American mezzo Stephanie Blythe made her SDO debut in the brief but pivotal role of the psychic fortuneteller Ulrica. Her Wagnerian expertise served her well, both in her vocal power and dramatic breadth. From the first terrifying moment calling in the king of the abyss until the shocking moment when she reveals Gustavo’s impending doom, she dominated her big scene with skill and panache. In her command of the situation, Stephanie Blythe reigned supreme.

Greek baritone Aris Argiris, in his North American debut, provided ample support as Beczała’s most faithful confidant, Count Anckarström. His abundant voice, if not as vocally beautiful as those in the other major roles, was generous, easily heard, and his arias were deftly phrased. 

As Gustavo’s ever-faithful pageboy Oscar, Kathleen Kim quickly became an audience favorite. Despite her tiny stature, the clarity of her voice cut through to the last row of the house in every solo passage, ensemble, chorus, and moment of heaviest orchestration. Her sparkling, winning characterization was a plus to a role in which she seemed utterly confident and at ease. Hers was undoubtedly a SDO debut to remember.

SDO mainstays Scott Sikon, Kevin Langan and Ashraf Sewailam solidly backed up the stellar cast with their accustomed proficiency.

In another impressive SDO debut, conductor Massimo Zanetti skillfully demonstrated his expertise culled from collaborations with virtually every major opera house in Europe. From the first three pizzicati to the final delicate high “B” in the prelude, and throughout the evening, the maestro showed meticulous attention to dynamics and coaxed velvety sounds from the strings, breathless tones from the winds, and appropriate weightiness from the brass. One would have preferred some of the tempi to be less rushed, allowing the instruments to do full justice to the cascades of notes required of them.

Returning after her great success in SDO’s Samson and Delilah last season, director Lesley Koenig showed her usual inventiveness in staging this work. From the very beginning, Koenig conveys the importance of disguises and masquerades; for example, in Act 1, she includes a diorama of the Act 3 ball scene set to represent Gustavo’s visualizing the decor, as he toys with a mask and banters with Oscar. Koenig moves the characters around the stage with great subtlety, their actions always organic to the flow, never forced or unduly noticeable, and beautifully integrated with designer John Conklin’s attractive sets. Conklin’s use of the balcony in the ball scene was both effective and appealing, adding much needed space for simultaneous differing actions between the characters. Repeating his admirable choreographic showing in last season’s Samson, Kenneth von Heidecke solved the problem of dovetailing the voluminous numbers of cast members on stage in Act 3 with an ongoing Commedia dell’Arte ballet that was lively and arresting: foreshadowing the murder about to take place without detracting from the shock element of the reprehensible deed.

When every last piece of glitter has fallen to the floor, one is left with the poignancy of the final scene and its brief choral hymn, which director Koenig has called “the most beautiful eleven bars and a quarter note in all of opera.”

In Verdi’s A Masked Ball, the music says everything. And it’s really good.

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Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at emwriter@earthlink.net

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