Tapping the musical wealth behind an opera’s mask

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(c) Dan Rest

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) and the Swedish King Gustavus III (Frank Lopardo) agonize over their forbidden love in "Un Ballo in Maschera" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

Review: Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”
at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Verdi’s 1859 opera “Un Ballo in Maschera” may be saddled with one of the weakest story lines the composer ever had to deal with, but it is a veritable garden of musical delights. And the Lyric Opera, in a staging of singular intimacy and conviction, gathers Verdi’s blossoms into bouquets of vocal splendor.

It’s bizarre to think that “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”) came at the end of a decade that began for Verdi with two such consummately integrated and compelling music-dramas as “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto.” But in “Ballo,” which suffered torments of censorship at the hands of both state and papal authorities, Verdi ultimately was obliged to hang his music on a libretto that had been squeezed and reshaped to comply with political, rather than dramatic, exigencies.

The story, which censors found either too inflammatory or too raw, centers on the unstable reign of King Gustavus III of Sweden and his amorous designs on Amelia, wife of the king’s personal secretary. While his foes plot his assassination, Gustavus pursues Amelia, who admits she returns his affections but keeps to the high moral ground of fidelity to her husband. After a course of mystical silliness and ridiculous plot turns, the opera ends badly for everyone.

But never mind that, the music transcends all – and so does a marvelous Lyric Opera cast doubly well served by stage director Renata Scotto and the Israeli conductor Asher Fisch.

As the precariously perched king, tenor Frank Lopardo cuts a capricious figure oblivious to all signs of danger and royally reckless in his quest for Amelia. Lopardo also brings a regal, free-spirited voice to the role. A highlight in an evening that offered many was Gustavus’ Act III soliloquy in which he contemplates the difficulty of Amelia’s position and resolves to end the unconsummated affair.

The simplicity of that scene is typical of the clarity that Scotto – one of the great Amelias during her stage career – brings to this production. Also evocatively staged is the pivotal second act in which Amelia at midnight searches around a hangman’s scaffold for an herb that might quell her passion for the king. She is found there by Gustavus, and the two then are caught not quite in flagrante by her husband Renato.  

That dramatic scheme allowed Verdi to transform an act into a musical monument, beginning with a prodigious soliloquy for the tormented and fearful Amelia. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s brilliant, tremulous, impassioned singing brought down a stormy ovation. But that was merely her warm-up: When Gustavus joins Amelia, the two share music of soaring ardor as he presses his love for her and she finally confesses that she loves him as well. In matched voices and in convincing chemistry, Radvanovsky and Lopardo lit up the house.

Despite the improbable  story, Verdi’s intimate musical portraits make us care about Amelia and Renato and respond to their very real distress, which comes to a head when Renato, believing his wife unfaithful, declares his intention to kill her – much like Othello informing Desdemona that she is about to die for her imagined sin. Baritone Mark Delavan’s proud, wounded and now vengeful Renato created a chilling foil to Radvanovsky’s lyrical protestations of innocence.

There’s a certain old-school quality in Verdi’s use of set pieces in “Ballo,” and a distinct homage to tradition in the coloratura trouser role of the king’s page Oscar. Soprano Kathleen Kim’s pixie presence was nicely complemented by her agile singing. But the voice that nearly stole the night belonged to mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, as the fortune-teller Ulrica. Blythe’s huge, supple, gorgeous delivery of Ulrica’s vision brought this show to a roaring pause.

Asher Fisch’s musical direction provided sympathetic accompaniment while shaping the opera at dramatically purposeful tempos. He also drew fluent, opulent playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

The sets and costumes from the San Francisco Opera lend this “Ballo” equal parts of luxury and eeriness. Luxurious as well is the contribution of the Lyric Opera Chorus in a formidable assignment.

Through Dec. 10. www.lyricopera.org. Call (312) 332-2244.

  

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.