No opera lover should miss Piedmont Opera Theatre's current production of Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. It has everything one might want – a solid cast of singer-actors, a director who enhances Verdi's drama (instead of working at cross purposes), a good blend of simple sets and effective lighting, and taut co-ordination between the pit and the stage. Almost everything about the second performance, heard in the Stevens Center on October 9, looked and sounded great. Set against so much that went so well, the flaws were indeed minor.
Censors, nervous about encouraging regicide, are responsible for mangling Verdi's opera about the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden by Ankarstorm, a gentleman of the court, during a masked ball in 1792. Gustav became Riccardo, Count of Warick, Governor of Boston! He loves and is loved by Amelia, wife of Renato, his best friend and secretary. Their relationship, unconsummated, is sublimated into superb arias seething with longing and heartache. Befitting their dark purposes, those who conspire against Riccardo are all dark voices, their arresting evil motive underlined by low strings. The silvery voice of the "pants role" of Oscar, the Page, often provides strong contrast and dramatic counterpoint. In the program book, NCSA's Nancy Goldsmith manages to clarify the textual complications in barely a page while describing the action in another. Her fluent and easy-to-read supertitles were models of their kind.
All opera productions ought to aim for the marriage of acting and singing achieved by Stage Director Steven LaCosse and his artists. First and foremost among these was baritone Robert Overman, as Renato. His warm and beautifully-supported voice easily filled the hall. His diction was superb, and the breadth of his characterization – from loyal friend, to thunderstruck husband, to vengeful conspirator – was stunning. Her voice equally strong, dramatic soprano Aimee Willis limed the depths of despair of Amelia (his wife), ranging from her desperate attempt to cure her love for Riccardo in Act II to her pleading for a last look at her son in Act III. With radiant highs, soprano Rhonda Overman perfectly embodied the light-hearted and playful insouciance of Oscar, the Page. With a solid low range and ominous body language, mezzo-soprano Shannon Magee brought "Grand Guignol" to the role of Ulrica, the Fortune Teller; all the melodramatic stops were pulled out for a powerful impersonation. It was such a joy to hear the ringing high notes of a sensitive tenor in the central role of Riccardo. Mexican tenor Jose Luis Duval was scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut (as Alfredo, in La Traviata) on March 3, 2006, but on February 9 of this year he made his first appearance there, on three hours' notice, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème. Compared with the rest of the cast, Duval's acting seemed to be stiff, to a degree, but in Act I, Scene 2, set in Ulrica's den, he let himself go and was unusually believable, disguised as a fisherman. Perhaps Duval and his director see Riccardo as being more introspective than, for example, the boisterous and overbearing character often portrayed by Pavarotti. In any event, his warm and balanced tenor was a constant delight – it readily filled the hall and was deployed with nuance and sensitivity.
Fine work was done by the supporting cast. CVNC has frequently chronicled the artistic growth of veteran Fletcher scholar Krassen Karagiozov. His firm baritone and engaging impersonation were welcome in the role of the sailor Silvano. Tenor and Fletcher Fellow John Kawa conveyed all the frustration of the Judge, out- maneuvered by Oscar. Baritone Alphonse Cherry brought a finely-honed voice to the role of Samuel, the juiciest conspirator part; CVNC has also recorded his successes in a number of NCSA productions. Bass-baritone Bradley Willard, a Winston-Salem native and NCSA graduate, made as much as he could of the thankless role of the other conspirator, Tom.
The effective and simple sets were designed by Howard Jones. Broken and raked levels served well throughout all three acts. A few pieces of furniture and a unit of columns suggested Riccardo's court in Act I, a darkly lit hanging gibbet in Act II set the gallows scene, a formal portrait on a wainscoted section evoked Renato's home, and reddish metallic chandlers captured the essence of the ballroom. The lighting designed by Norman Coates maximized the effectiveness of each set. The smoke and fireworks of Ulrica's "witch's brew" was a nice touch. The attractive costumes had been created for the Salzburg Festival Opera and were provided through an arrangement with Pro Eto Costumes. The small Piedmont Opera Theatre Chorus had been well prepared by conductor James Albritten. Kudos to director LaCosse for creating strongly individualized but not distracting stage business for each member of the chorus. This attention to detail was handsomely repaid in dramatic verisimilitude.
Conductor Albritten obtained tight ensemble and exemplary playing from members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, in the pit. The strings, playing as one, etched the ethereal opening with crystalline precision, while the ebbing of Riccado's life was echoed in transparency near the end of the opera. Fine solos were played by oboist John Ellis and harpist Helen Rifas. In Act III, the cellos, led by Gayle Masarie, did wonderfully as they shadowed Amelia's pleading "Morrò, ma prima in grazia."
Note: Un Ballo in Maschera is repeated tomorrow (10/11) in the Stevens Center. See our calendar for details.