'Masked Ball' starts slowly, finishes well Evstatieva stars


FREED AT LEAST temporarily of money problems if not stage gremlins, the Baltimore Opera Company presented Verdi's "A Masked Ball" Saturday night in a 2-hour, 50-minute production that developed steam only after the first act but then continued strongly.

Part of the slow start was a thin-sounding orchestral prelude, a strong-voiced Gustav sung without complete beauty of tone by Venezuelan Ruben Dominguez, a pretty-voiced but undramatic Oscar portrayed by soprano Judy Berry and two not very menacing bass conspirators sung by Stephen Kirchgraber and James Stith.

Baritone George Fortune as Ankerstrom and Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mauriana Paunova as the sorceress Ulrica, however, carried their roles from the start with pacing and passion as well as pleasing sound.

Then Bulgarian soprano Stefka Evstatieva, singing Amelia with beautiful tone in all registers, arrived for good in Act II and Verdi's dramatic and extremely musical opera took off.

Her solos, on picking herbs and admission of love for Gustav, and the love duet with tenor Dominguez were moving in phrasing, richness and tone colors. Dominguez himself picked up in the duet and proved expressive and touching in his sorrowful concluding arias.

Two sad duets of voice and instrument lent moments of special poignancy starting Act III. Gita Roche played a cello solo accompanying Evstatieva, asking as a mother to see her son before her supposed death. Harpist Deborah Fleisher accompanied Fortune, the seemingly betrayed husband, lamenting his lost love and happiness.

With love and family, Verdi valued country as major reasons for living, and Baltimore Opera's "Masked Ball" saw that theme developed in conflicting reactions to the king.

Ensemble singing and quintets of different emotions of hate, love, guilt, honor, revenge and remorse provided an odd unifying cohesiveness. Altogether, Verdi dropped more than 20 tuneful melodies into this fine package.

First night bugs plagued the opera. One singer didn't quite make it to the other side of the first act curtain. The same offending curtain later came down on the king's painting, prompting cheers when freed by pole-wielding stagehands. Ulrica's dramatic unveiling, timed for a musical climax, was less than dramatic when two friends lowered cloth corners separately.

A decorative column wobbled on touch. And all stage lights went out temporarily between curtains calls for Evstatieva and

Dominguez. Curiously, curtain calls were made in the semidarkness of the final act ballroom, making everyone on stage a bit of a conspirator.

The mood-rich set, created with the Cincinnati Opera, was the original Swedish motif. Cal Stewart Kellogg of the Washington Opera conducted the harmonious opera orchestra, Ian Strasfogel directed stage action, Tom Hall was chorus master and Michael Baumgarten, the lighting designer.

Baltimore fans seem to have gotten used to English surtitles (the opera was sung in Italian). William Yannuzzi wrote the titles with his usual believable English.

The opera will be repeated at 8:15 p.m. March 13 and March 15 and at 3 p.m. March 17. Tickets are $15-$70. Call 685-0692.

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