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Washington National Opera opens season with generally effective 'Masked Ball'

Washington National Opera opens season with generally effective 'Masked Ball'

enters the 2010-11 season amid lots of questions about the future – Will the company be absorbed into the Kennedy Center in an effort to improve the financial picture? If so, will that cause great angst among the donor class? Will the ever-over-extended Placido Domingo remain at the helm for much longer? Who will the new music director be, now that Heinz Fricke has given up the post due to ill health?

While breathless souls await outcomes to these and other burning issues, audiences can take in a production of "Un Ballo in Maschera," one of Verdi's greatest works. There are so many things about this opera that never fail to floor me. I'm particularly fascinated by the deep coloring of the orchestration, the way that key dramatic moments can generate such unnerving force (as in the Ulrica scene) and the way intimate moments in the plot are so deftly crafted – all pointing the way toward "Aida." And no one has ever captured in music the sound and impact of derisive laughter more perfectly than Verdi does in Act 2. Genius.

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So, OK, there is that little matter of the libretto. For the longest time, opera companies were stuck with the hard-to-swallow version the censors allowed Verdi to use, where the action takes place in colonial America. I never could buy totally into that one. These days, you’re more likely to encounter “Ballo” placed into the setting the composer envisioned – late 18th-century Sweden, where the target of conspirators is King Gustavus III (not the "Governor of Boston"). That’s how WNO is presenting it.

This still leaves the problem of character names. I don't care what the program book says. You might be able to think of the tenor as Gustavus, rather than Riccardo, but Ulrica will always be Ulrica, never Mam'zelle Arvidson. Renato will never be Count Anckarstrom.

Anyway, I caught up with the WNO production on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. All things considered, a decent night in the opera house.

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The standout in the cast was

Tamara Wilson as Amelia. Her soprano possesses considerable warmth, not to mention agility and sureness throughout the registers. The high pianissimo she produced at the start of the line “Ah, miserere di me, Signor” in her Act 2 aria was but one admirable example of the technical caliber of Wilson’s singing. The affecting emotion she imparted subsequently in “Morro, ma prima in grazia” was but one example of her communicative skill.

Salvatore Licitra is a problematic singer. He was hailed as the next big thing in tenorhood some years ago, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype. As Gustavus, he produced a big sound, but also a rather dry one. I hoped for more richness and nuance. Still, there was a dynamic styling in his phrases and a certain engaging quality to his characterization.

Luca Salsi was pretty much a one-volume-fits-all baritone as Renato, and that volume was loud. He always sounded pushed to the limit, with no more to give. Still, he had a good deal of dramatic impact in the third act. Elena Manistina's mezzo was on the light side for Ulrica, yet secure and always expressive. Micaela Oeste's Oscar had sufficient vocal brightness and abundant physical energy. With his burnished baritone and sensitive dynamic shading, Aleksey Bogdanov made a strong impression in his brief appearance as Christian (known as Silvano in the Boston version). Kenneth Kellogg (Count Ribbing) and Julien Robbins (Count Horn) got the job done sturdily enough.

The chorus was in cohesive, responsive form. The orchestra, too, excelled. Conductor Daniele Callegari drove the music along. More rhythmic expansion would have been welcome here and there, but the tension he achieved paid dividends all evening.

Allen Moyer's economical set design was a little drab and, in the first act, relied heavily on chairs – now one of the oldest and most tired of contemporary stage props. The ball scene, in particular, lacked elegance, especially since James Schuette costumed the choristers in the same colorless fashion and gave them identical, hand-held masks. It was a look, just not a terribly interesting one.

Director James Robinson kept the action flowing effectively and added some telling bits along the way, such as Gustavus miming a heart attack after Ulrica made her doom-filled prediction of his fate. But I wasn't persuaded by the sight of Oscar trying to go for a piggyback ride on Count Ribbing, and I sure could have done without the puppets that were dragged out during the ball.

Performances continue through Sept. 25. Sunday's matinee will be simulcast at Nationals Park, where admission is free and 20,000 opera fans are expected.

PHOTOS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA

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