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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Opera Review: Follow the Bouncing Ballo

The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Un Ballo in Maschera bowed on Monday night, anchored by a strong, well-sung performance by Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo III, the King of Sweden. Licitra stepped into the operatic limelight in 2002 when he took over Cavaradossi for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. Here Licitra sang a performance that the recently deceased Luciano would have been proud of. Gustavo is one of Pavarotti's signature roles with well-rounded tone and ear-pleasing high notes. He exhibited outhrusting sexual charisma and a magnetic stage presence--you truly regretted his death at the opera's climax. In other words Licitra's performance embodied the Pavarotti tradition from the singer's salad days.

Ballo had more problems with the censor than any other Verdi opera (except maybe or ). As a result, the house hs two options in performing it: go with the original setting. In the Swedish setting, the King is the historical (but historically homosexual) Gustav III of Sweden--not exactly who you want at the center of a love triangle. Possibly worse is the "censored" version, in which the King becomes "Riccardo", Duke of Warwick" and where the glittering masked ball is placed in the unlikely setting of Puritan-run colonial Boston.

In either Stockholm or Boston, this is one of the trickiest Verdi scores to conduct. It is light in its texture, with a frothy humor that is smewhat uncharacteristic for this master of the stage tragedy. This lightness proved difficult for conductor Gianandrea Noceda, whose lead-footed conducting slowed the opera's pacing and sense of dramatic flow, He also failed to pull back the orchestra at key climactic moments--the singers were either drowned out or forced to shout over the pit.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought his usual heroic presence to the role of Count Anckarström, whose jealous rage and decision to assassinate the King makes him this opera's true protagonist. Whether he is the Count (in Sweden) or Renato, a "Creole" (In Boston) it is this character's tragic development that makes this character spin. Renato/Anckarström goes from buddy and court lackey to a humiliated, enraged husband who is prepared to kill the King dead--in public!--to avenge his honor. His transition provides Ballo with its emotional core, and one cannot help thinking that Hvorostovsky's performance, while magnificently sung, seemed detached from the tragedy at hand. That said, his Act III aria was a highlight of the evening.

As Amelia, the woman caught in the middle between these two men, was American-born soprano Michele Crider. She displayed a fine, sweet toned voice, but unfortunately had to struggle over the orchestra at the climax of her Act II aria. Ofelia Sala made a fine debut in the trouser role of Oscar, the King's perpetually perky page. Stephanie Blythe rocked the house as Ulrica--it's a pity that this witchy woman only appears in Act I.

Salvatore Licitra does the hand jive.
Photo © Patrick MacMullan from Mastroianni Associates.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.