Thursday, October 16, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Un Ballo in Maschera

Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia (photo by Cory Weaver).
October 10, 2014

Moderation is the mode of operation in this SFO production. The period costumes and settings are picture-perfect, the singing is well-tempered, and the direction is by-the-book.

But I wish they would have messed with it, because Ballo deserves to be messed with. Antonio Somma’s libretto tries too hard to excuse everybody from their bad actions, as if everyone, even political assassins, were good in their hearts. (As opposed to Rigoletto, where everyone is rotten to the core.) I wish stage director Jose Maria Condemi would have had his oft-imaginative way with it.

Think about the plot, for instance. Popular, down-to-earth leader is brought to a bad end by a circle of surly opponents who reveal his adulterous affair. Is that not the exact storyline of the Monica Lewinsky affair? Kenneth Starr as the leader of the conspirators? Ulrica the witch (whose prophecies lead everyone to doom) re-cast as Lewinsky’s rat co-worker Linda Tripp? Come on, people! Take a flyer.

It’s somewhat understandable that one might go conservative, because the voices in this cast are divine. Ramon Vargas plays Gustavus III with his usual lyrical suavity, and is assisted by Thomas Hampton, one of the smoothest baritones in existence, as Count Anckarström. Soprano Heidi Stober checks in with an impish presence and some tasty bel canto staccatos as Oscar. As Ulrica the witch, mezzo Dolora Zajick is perfectly balanced, forgoing any scary-loud singing for a more eerie reading of the Satanic invocation, “Re dell’abisso.” She is interrupted by the sailor Silvano, played with great panache by baritone Efrain Solis.

The great wild card is Amelia, sung by the relative newcomer (and Merola program alumna) Julianna Di Giacomo. The soprano’s tone is so whipped-cream frothy in Act 1, I wondered how she would handle the Act II gallows scene, which was performed in the 2006 production by the very dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt. No worries there. Di Giacomo delivered the low, foreboding notes of the opening, “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa,” with great power and a perfectly attuned vibrato. The rest of the brooding scene is a sonic sundae, matching her with Vargas in a duet and adding Hampson for a sumptuous trio, ending with the strangely fetching gallop of “Odi tu come fremano cupi.”

Nicola Luisotti and orchestra handled Verdi’s score with much energy, particularly in the sledgehammer outbursts preceding the scene at Ulrica’s and the famed prelude to the gallows scene. The commedia dell’arte troupe was a tasty addition to the ball scene, along with a rain of golden confetti. Christian Van Horn and Scott Conner were excellent and surly as the conspirators (if you hear bass-baritones talking in hushed tones, run!). Hampson was particularly good in “Eri tu,” mixing equal parts bitterness and nostalgia in contemplating his wife’s betrayal. Vargas’s movements seemed strangely stiff, almost as if he had some sort of neck injury.

Through Oct. 22, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Mchael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the best-selling Kindle novel The Popcorn Girl.

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