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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Opera Review: They Could Be Royals

Amore Opera throws Verdi's Masked Ball.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

A throne of games: Tenor José Heredia (center, prone) dies at the end of Un ballo in Maschera/
hoto by Ashley Becker © 2019 Amore Opera.
The Amore Opera ended its tenth season on Sunday afternoon with a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera. Of Verdi's mature operas, Ballo is unique. It is closer to French comic opera in style than anything else the composer wrote, even if it follows the musical conventions of Italian opera with only a sprinkling of French flavor in its score. The text is in Italian, and the musical style is late Verdi, with an almost-Wagnerian use of repeated themes attached to its characters. Although it has a tragic ending, there is am airy lightness to the music and the stage action, which frames a simple love triangle against a wrenching political assassination.

Ballo had a tortured history. It originated as a Eugene Scribe libretto, set as the 1833 grand  opera Gustave III by the composer Daniel Auber. With the help of Alessandro Somma, Verdi recycled Scribe's libretto. Gustavo III (as it was first called) retells the story of an historical Swedish king who was assassinated by a courtier at a glittering masked ball in Stockholm. However, trouble with the censors in Naples forced Verdi and Somma to change the name of the opera (twice!) move the action, first to Pomerania and then to "glamorous" colonial Boston, and finally withdraw the work altogether. For the opera's Rome premiere, poor old King Gustavo was demoted to "Count Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick." This assuages censorious objections to a royal assassination onstage  All this left directors with a problematic opera that has two sets of character names and two very different location options.
King Gustav III of Sweden (left) and his two brothers. As far as we know they didn't try to kill him.
Painting by Alexander Roslin for Wikimedia Commons.

Director Nathan Hull opted for the Swedish setting for the opera, indicating this in the first act with  a throne emblazoned with that country's "three crowns" crest and blue-and-yellow Swedish flags prominently displayed. However, the characters had their "Boston" names: Riccardo, Renato, Ulrica and the conspirators and would-be assassins "Samuel" and "Tom." (Maybe they're easier to pronounce?) The staging was absolutely traditional, white wigs for the fellas, gowns for the ladies and a small chorus and orchestra that was the right size for the small Riverside Church Theater that has become this company's home base. Under the baton of Douglas Martin, the reduced orchestral forces actually clarified Verdi's themes for the listener, with the woodwinds balancing well with the strings.

Sunday's performance had a good cast, led by the round and forceful voice of tenor Jose Heredia. He may not have brought too much depth to Riccardo (the character isn't that complicated) but he sang with power when needed and a genial tone. He made the final turn, where a dying Riccardo forgives his assassin with great skill, drawing sympathy and pathos in those too-brief passages thar (somewhat abruptly) end the opera. As Amelia, object of the King's affections, Ashley Becker gave a performance that walked the line between bel canto tone and spinto power, singing her great scene in the second act with real human emotions and even managing Verdi's few, but challenging low notes.

No character has a longer or more tortured emotional journey in this opera than Renato. He is the King's secretary, bestie and Amelia's husband. Eventually it is jealousy over the perceived (but unconsummated) relationship between his wife and the King that causes him to join the conspiracy and lead the assassination. In some ways, this character is a sketch for Otello. Written for the baritone voice (and sung here by Jonathan R. Green, this character veered from nobility to jealousy to regicidal rage. However, unlike Shakespeare, Renato's wrath falls not on his wife  but on his perceived rival.

Things reach a boiling point when Renato, who has agreed to escort the King's trysting partner home, sees this woman unmask herself in front of a group of courtiers who have hurried there to assassinate the King. His humiliation leads to one of the most delicately written passages in Verdi, the "laughing chorus" as the would-be killers exit guffawing over Renato's sudden humiliation. This was led by basses Jay Gould and Charles Gray as Samuel and Tom and sounds almost like a passage from an operetta. Far heavier is the great baritone aria "Eri tu" with Mr. Green chewing the budget scenery and giving full vent to Renato's fury with his boss and his wife.

Key supporting players started and finished strong. Notable among these were Christa Dalmazio in the trouser role of the page Oscar, who seemed to have stepped out of a Mozart drawing-room comedy and into an exercise in deadly irony. Also, Galina Ivannikova brought the full power of her mezzo to Ulrica, the witch whose prophecies turn out to always be right. It is to the Amore Opera stage crew's credit that the scene in her demesne was among the most effective in the opera. There was a boiling cauldron, lots of dry ice and an eerie atmosphere. Maybe they should recycle all these elements plus Mr. Green's baritone and consider doing Verdi's Macbeth.

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