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A Trip Back in Time

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
04/29/2017 -  & April 30*, May 2, 5, 6 (Miami), 11, 13 (Fort Lauderdale), 2017
Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Jonathan Burton*/Rafael Davila (Gustavo), Alexandra LoBianco*/Tamara Wilson (Amelia), Todd Thomas (Count Anckarström), Elena Galván (Oscar), Dana Beth Miller (Ulrica), Benjamin Werley (A Judge, Amelia’s servant), Nicholas G. Ward (Cristiano), Calvin Griffin (Count Ribbing), Alex Soare (Count Horn)
Florida Grand Opera Chorus, Katherine Kozak (chorus master), Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, Ramón Tebar (conductor)
Marco Pelle (director), Eric Fielding (scenic design), Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costume design), Kevin G. Mynatt (lighting design)

E. Galván, T. Thomas (© Brittany Mazzurco)

Florida Grand Opera, as usual, offered an eclectic season. For the closing they are giving a piece that is sort of on the edge of the bread and butter repertory. Un ballo in maschera is performed less often then the big middle three in the Verdi canon. Aida is undoubtedly more popular, though it is so expensive to produce that it can’t be staged as often as Ballo. These two operas are comparable because it is hard to imagine that the Egyptian epic could have ever been created without the giant work that the master achieved here. The music in Ballo has only hits: many beloved arias that are often performed in concerts, intricate ensemble work, giant choral pieces and the second scene of the first act can rival Aida’s triumphal march in size and imagination.

Is this a great opera? Probably few would say that. The plot, though it moves at a lightning pace, is basically a potboiler. The characters are not very interesting and to keep us involved, it is necessary to have great singers, preferably ones who can act. Great singing is what this opera is all about. No one attends Un ballo in maschera because of the libretto’s great emotional depth, though everyone will discover music that transcends the story and is so powerful that anything such as a complex storyline would just get in the way. Most will agree that this opera is a magnificent piece of entertainment.

Before getting to what’s important, let’s mention the unexceptional production. The program notes do not tell where the opera is taking place. Boston? Sweden? The design showing ironwork and the graves in the cemetery implied New Orleans to me. Costumes? They were very attractive. I guess it was Colonial America? Who cares?

It is the singing that counts this time and for this we were treated to something rare these days, truly great Verdi singing starting with the newly svelte (and no less cute) Elena Galván as Oscar. The coloratura was no challenge for her. Oscar’s movements require a dancer’s grace so Ms. Galván was simply having the time of her life. This brilliant performer is completing her second year in Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist program, her future is secure. Of course she will do the soubrettes for quite awhile, but something tells me that she will move on to riper repertoire. But now let’s revel in someone who can easily tackle this risky stuff with the command of someone much more experienced.

The Ulrica of Dana Beth Miller harkens to the great mezzos and contraltos of the past. I have read that because of its brevity, many singers regard this role as insignificant. In truth she is the most interesting character in the entire piece. Ms. Miller reminds us that there are no small parts. Her commitment is to giving a most beautiful sound while scaring the bejeezus out of us. Time for her Azucena, Eboli and Amneris, FGO; this caliber doesn’t come along often.

Renato is Ballo’s most sensitive character, the one with some real human dimension. Todd Thomas is a knockout vocally and dramatically. His famous Act 3 aria deserved the biggest ovation. He created true sympathy for this terribly confused man who struggles to find an appropriate reaction to a misinterpreted event.

Alexandra LoBianco’s Amelia was not at the caliber of the others. But this doesn’t imply for a second that she is not a great performer. The problem seemed to come as her singing lost focus in the piano passages. But when she approached the glorious big music, the voice was huge and always beautiful, very beautiful. Perhaps it was just adjusting to the theatre’s acoustics. This is a singer whom any company should feel grateful to have on its roster. Again, she represents a return to the old-fashioned which is the highest compliment in this increasingly compromised world.

Jonathan Burton was a revelation. Great Verdi tenors seem to have vanished. Just listen to the last few Met broadcasts of Aida and you will be horrified (especially when the audience responds rapturously). Burton sang Gustavo with such ease and suavity that I felt transported in time. A truly elegant performer; long may he reign.

The smaller roles in this opera do not really offer a chance to make much of an impression except for Ribbing and Horn (or is it Sam and Tom, or Tom and Huck, does it really matter?) Once again Florida Grand Opera gave us two sonorous bass-baritones in Calvin Griffin and Alex Soare. Their beautiful sounds were actually quite different with much dimension making their laughing duet especially cruel and the Act III quintet a knockout.

Conductor Ramón Tebar once again sails along with a command any audience will savor. As always it is a surprise to hear instruments never before noticed on recordings. The company must revel in Tebar’s extraordinary talent and guidance.

Look, it’s this simple. If you hear something as great as this performance, and still don’t get it, then perhaps Italian opera just isn’t for you.

Jeff Haller



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