Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("A Masked Ball") has a perfection of shape, an exuberance of spirit and a sheerly Italianate joy in beautiful singing unmatched even by the composer's other middle-period masterpieces. Rarer still among Verdi's operas is that it provides a longer, richer, more rewarding part for tenor than for baritone. The last of these reasons -- though there are others -- makes a compelling case for the Washington Opera's current production of "Ballo," unveiled Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Opera House.
Tenor Richard Margison cuts an unprepossessing figure. But when the short, stocky tenor opens his mouth, he reveals someone up to the demands of his great part, whether in the unreserved romanticism of his haunting "La rivedra," in the wit and sophistication of his rejection of the prophecy of his doom in "E scherzo od e folia" or in the tragedy of his final moments.
Margison sang with the youthful brilliance, freshness, well-judged attacks and clarity of articulation for which the role of "Ballo's" Riccardo calls. He has a beautiful top, solid lower and middle ranges, and he makes changes in register with deceptive ease. His name was new to me and others in the audience, but I suspect that we will be hearing a lot more from him.
Tenors of Margison's quality qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but this beautiful-looking production (designed by the redoubtable Zack Brown and lit by Joan Sullivan) boasts several other fine voices. In the "trousers" role of Riccardo's page, Oscar, Jan Grissom (memorable as Zerbinetta in Washington's recent "Ariadne auf Naxos" and as Norina in last season's "Don Pasquale") sang with charm, accuracy and beauty of voice. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever made a strong impression as the sorceress, Ulrica. She sang the low-lying part (in which the legendary contralto Marian Anderson made her belated debut at the Met) with fluency and intensity. And in the small role of the sailor, bass-baritone Scott Wilde displayed youthful strength and ardor.
Unfortunately, the soprano and baritone leads were problematic. Apart from Aida, Amelia is Verdi's most taxing soprano role, demanding -- particularly in Act II's formidable recitative and aria -- piercing high notes and a grand style. Lisa Gasteen coped courageously with the part, but occasionally betrayed unsteadiness of tone and intonation. Yalun Zhang seems to have been miscast as Renato. He did not have the flexibility for his initial aria, "Alla vita che t'arride," and in Act III's great "Eri tu" -- which demands scarcely less dramatic intensity than Iago's "Credo" and a warm lyricism worthy of the elder Germont -- he came up empty-handed.
Cal Steward Kellogg competently conducted the Kennedy Center Orchestra, which sometimes sounded like a student orchestra minus its enthusiasm. The stage direction of Florian-Malte Leibrecht -- particularly in his handling of the chorus and the beginning of Act II's love scene -- was sometimes inept enough to be unintentionally amusing.