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A Golden Age Masked Ball

San Diego
Civic Theatre
03/08/2014 -  & March 11, 14, 16, 2014
Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Kevin Langan (Count Ribbing), Ashraf Sewailam (Count Horn), Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Piotr Beczala (Gustav III), Aris Argiris (Count Anckarström), Joseph Hu (High Judge & Amelia's Servant), Stephanie Blythe (Madame Arvidson), Scott Sikon (Christian), Krassimira Stoyanova (Amelia)
San Diego Opera Chorus, Charles F. Prestinari (Chorus Master), San Diego Opera Orchestra, Massimo Zanetti (conductor)
Lesley Koenig (director), Kenneth von Heidecke (choreographer), John Conklin (costume designer), Gary Marder (lighting designer), Steven Bryant (wig and makeup designer), Dorothy Randall (principal pianist), Emanuela Patroncini (diction coach)

P. Beczala, A. Argiris (© Ken Howard)

There are voices and then there are voices. While opera's necessity for outstanding voices, no matter the repertoire, is obvious, the music of Giuseppe Verdi seems to present the most formidable challenge for casting. Though the golden age of singers such as Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill is long past, there are still singers who can more than ably, even thrillingly, fill the need to provide a world class Verdi performance. Unsurprisingly, San Diego Opera's starry cast accomplished such in Saturday's opening night performance of A Masked Ball.

While Verdi's telling of the real life assassination of Gustav III of Sweden has failed to secure a place in the repertoire that the more over-the-top Aida and Il trovatore enjoy, this is arguably his most musically consistent. It moves from tune to tune with ease while keeping frivolity at bay. The four lead roles each have show-stopping arias masterfully woven into the fabric of the piece. But even more compelling than that is the dramatic efficiency of the work. Massimo Zanetti tied all of these threads together from the pit and in doing so shone as the brightest star of the evening.

The maestro gave a driving reading that never turned into bluster. Zanetti shaped, pushed and pulled, all while weaving together the musical fabric of the score which comprises so many colorful sonorities. It was a vision of the piece that was surprising in its inventiveness, but seemed dramatically organic. The clarity he brought to the ensemble, both vocally and instrumentally, betrayed a musically assured mind, intimately familiar with the score. The piece sounded fresh all while remaining fundamentally Verdi. Both orchestra and chorus were at their best and exceptionally attentive and inspired.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a musically attentive lead like Piotr Beczala. The Polish tenor possesses a bright Italianate sound with squillo and sumptuous line. He has made a distinguished career thus far and with good reason. You just don't find a voice like this that often. Saturday featured the tenor dramatically engaged and a magnetic presence onstage. This was a Gustav who was relentlessly charming and whose demise was tragic. Beczala sang with confidence and spun line after beautiful line. On occasion, he was inconsistent above the staff, alternating between ringing, stentorian tones and a more covered sound, but this was a gripping performance. "Di' tu se fedele" was winning and confident. "Ma se m'è forza perderti" was mature and magnanimous in sound and character.

The subject of Gustavus' forbidden love, Amelia, was played by soprano Krassimira Stoyanova. The Bulgarian doesn't posses a typical Verdi-soprano sound. Her dark, imposing instrument lacks the bite of more resplendent instruments, but it makes a powerful sound. Perfectly in tune and controlled, Stoyanova's portrayal was particularly sympathetic. Her "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" was captivating, sung with beautiful line and dynamic color. As the selfless character, Stoyanova was outstanding in her deportment.

As her husband, Count Anckarström, baritone Aris Argiris began the evening stiff vocally and physically, lacking the apparent admiration he holds for his king. But by the third act Argiris had grown comfortable enough to give a shattering "Eri tu." The baritone sang with power, line and a, if not quintessential, then beautiful Verdi-baritone sound, echoing sonorities of distinguished predecessors.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a luxurious bit of casting for the compact role of Ulrica, but a brilliant one. Blythe's unbelievably large voice soared through the cavernous Civic Theatre, her rattling chest voice blended imperceptibly with her high notes. It was a dramatically masterful portrayal of the pivotal role and a vocally authoritative performance.

Kathleen Kim was another singer who just added to the embarrassment of riches that is this cast. As the page boy Oscar, Kim was spritely. Her coloratura soprano was a marvel, perfectly in tune with splendid ease of motion. Rounding out the cast, Kevin Langan and Ashraf Sewailam sang the conspirators Ribbing and Horn with veiled malice. Scott Sikon was a gruff, endearing sailor and Joseph Hu pulled double duty as Amelia's servant and a comically decrepit High Judge.

Lesley Koenig's direction of this San Francisco Opera production was effective and concise. While there was a fair share of operatic busyness between the non-singing characters in a given scene, she did a fine job of focusing the audience's attention, particularly in the crowded final scene. While the actual assassination was slightly awkward, the final convergence of the piece was moving. Sets were period and pleasing, particularly in the first and final palace scenes. The others were more utilitarian but effective.

And effective this performance was, not just as a piece of music, but as a piece of musical theater. With very few misjudgments (the static second act love duet being the primary one), this Masked Ball soared thanks to expert leadership from the pit and incomparable voices onstage. It was, in many ways, a performance that was an echo of a golden era of singing and music making that allows Verdi's genius to soar above all others.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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