Show serves Verdi well

Review: Opera offers striking set, strong casting and conducting.

April 02, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), Giuseppe Verdi took giant stylistic strides, achieving a taut score that moved away from many operatic conventions of the day. Thanks to absurd censorship battles, the setting of the work's original plot moved away, too - from a European royal court, where a king was assassinated, to Colonial America, where a "governor of Boston" met the same fate.

That change of venue never did make a lot of sense, but the power and imagination of Verdi's music survived the transfer. Audiences saw through the theatrical disguise, just as a character in the opera sees through a costume at the masked ball and carries out a misguided murder.

The messages of political intrigue and human frailties (especially jealousy) came through loud and clear in 1859, as they do in the Washington Opera's presentation of Ballo, which opened Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Strong casting, mostly effective conducting and a strikingly handsome set serve Verdi well.

There are lots of tri-cornered hats, and the central figure of Riccardo does bid farewell to America just before dying (though not in the surtitles, which consciously avoid any American references or other specific identifying information). But otherwise, there really is nothing too overtly American in the production, originally from La Scala in Milan.

The people and their problems are presented in such a way that their nationality becomes irrelevant. This leaves the drama and the music front and center, which was always Verdi's preference.

Marcello Giordani, as Riccardo, sounded a little under the weather. His lower register turned gravelly, but the rest of the tenor's voice was in terrific shape. Top notes poured out with gleaming, virile richness; phrases were shaded with remarkable sensitivity. His acting, too, was convincing. Folks worried about the state of tenor-hood today can rest easy as long as Giordani continues to excel.

Ines Salazar made a fascinating Amelia. The soprano may not have the smoothest technique (gears shifted awkwardly at times), but her tone often had a wonderfully burnished quality. The upper register, whether full-throttle or at pianissimo, hit home most expressively. She was also an involving actress, summoning considerable pathos in the Act 3 confrontation with her husband.

In that spousal role of Renato, baritone Stephan Pyatnychko was sometimes short on vocal wattage, but unfailingly communicative in phrasing. Youngok Shin's Oscar started out sounding a little rough and effortful, but the soprano was soon producing lots of colorful, charming vocalism.

Mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba brought lush low notes and a flair for the grand phrase to the role of Ulrica. Supporting roles were effectively handled; the chorus made vibrant contributions.

Conductor Eugene Kohn threw himself into the performance. His arms whirled like a windmill in a gale; he crouched for soft notes, a finger to his lips in shushing mode, and practically pulled loud ones out of singers and orchestra. Coordination slips between pit and stage popped up, but Kohn succeeded in generating potent amounts of tension and lyricism. (Washington Opera artistic director Placido Domingo will conduct tonight, April 14 and 20.)

Except for an uncooperative oboe, the orchestra was solid.

Director Marina Bianchi, had the action moving seamlessly. The assassination scene, with the on-stage musicians slowly realizing what was happening, had particular theatrical power.

Dante Ferretti's scenic design of classic Georgian lines provided strong visual appeal, from the opening image of a bustling legislative session to the starkly chic interior of Renato's house. Gianni Mantovanni's lighting enhanced the sets, most memorably in the gallows scene, with faces half in the dark, just like the characters themselves.

A Masked Ball

Where: Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W., Washington

When: tonight through Arpil 14

Tickets: $63 to $280

Call: 202-295-2400, 800-876-7372

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