Except for the title role in "Aida," the role of Amelia in "A $H Masked Ball" is the heaviest and most taxing that Verdi wrote for the soprano voice. The recitative and aria that begin Act II is as treacherous as anything in the repertory, and any singer is wise to approach it with trepidation.
It is a pleasure to report, therefore, that Stefka Evstatieva made her way through that particular minefield -- and everything else in the role -- accurately, majestically and musically last Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House. In an age when there do not seem to be many true Verdian sopranos around, Evstatieva demonstrated that she is the genuine article. She is rhythmically accurate; she possesses beauty of tone and strength in all three of her registers; she can spin out a beautiful legato line; she can attack with the sudden stealth and grace of a cat; and she has the vocal heft of a real dramatic soprano -- superior whenever she so chooses to orchestra and massed ensembles.
Although the Bulgarian soprano was much the best thing about this "Masked Ball" -- a new production that is a joint effort of the Baltimore Opera Company and the Cincinnati Opera -- it was generally well sung and played. Ruben Dominguez was never less than competent (and sometimes more than that) as Gustavo, the Swedish King whose love for Amelia sets the tragedy in motion. But to this listener's ears, he often sounded like a converted baritone. The high notes were there and were reasonably secure. But the timbre sounded baritonal and the singer never sounded genuinely comfortable in the highest part of the role.
Similar criticism could be made about two other principals. George Fortune sang Ankerstrom with affecting conviction, but he often was slightly below pitch and sounded more comfortable in the lower range of the role. And although her program biography called her a contralto, Mariana Paunova clearly stretched to reach her lowest notes as the sorceress Ulrica.
No qualifications whatever attach to Judy Berry's portrayal of the colortura "pants" role of the page, Oscar. Berry's singing was brilliant and accurate, and she trilled and danced around the stage engagingly.
Although the orchestra had some initial rough going, conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg (who knew the score so well that he sang every note) led a capable and enthusiastic performance. The unobtrusive but effective direction and lighting were by Ian Strasfogel and Michael Baumgarten.
"A Masked Ball" will be repeated Wednesday and Friday evenings and Sunday afternoon.