By Robert P. Commanday
SAN FRANCISCO — Verdi’s great Un ballo in maschera has been a winner in San Francisco for all of 151 years, beginning only four years after its 1859 premiere. The opera was performed here 130 times in the 19th century, and the San Francisco Opera had previously given 76 performances over 17 different seasons since its first production in 1931. The current Un ballo in maschera, attended on Oct. 7, ranks with some of the better ones of a past illuminated by the great stars of the last 83 years (Leontyne Price sang her first Amelia here, Luciano Pavarotti his first Riccardo, and so on).
This time, there are three stars. The first, Julianna Di Giacomo, makes her San Francisco Opera main stage debut as Amelia. Her soprano produces a sound true and vital that possesses, and vibrates in, the listener. Musically, expressively, she encompasses Amelia’s terrible emotional crisis and makes it real for us. She is a Californian, young, trained earlier in the company’s Merola Opera Program, and already into her career, having sung on major stages yet having an opera world waiting for her talent.
Another star is Nicola Luisotti, the company’s music director, who led an intensely expressive performance, brilliantly paced. Musically, he seemed to be alternately becoming Riccardo, then Renato, and yes, Amelia, himself. This inspired his orchestra, the third star, to produce a deeply dramatic performance with great thrust, as in the gallows area and the Renato-Amelia confrontation scenes.
Right alongside were major players. Ramón Vargas, the Riccardo (a.k.a. Gustavus III), may be an older veteran (he made his SFO debut in this role 15 years ago), his tenor a bit grainy and not brilliant, but he was right on, as ardent and conflicted as Riccardo must be.
Brian Mulligan, the Renato in this and one remaining performance on Oct. 22 (with Thomas Hampson scheduled for all other dates including Oct. 16 and 19 upcoming) is a large fellow with a baritone to match — dramatic, more forward than dark. Mulligan’s Renato is a strong character whose aria about his betrayal, “Eri tu,” was penetrating. (Mulligan has appeared at the San Francisco Opera in the title role of Nixon in China, and most recently as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly.)
The Ulrica, Dolora Zajick, was an absorbing sorceress, and the director, Jose Maria Condemi, took advantage of her strength, having her move around and project commandingly, opening up a scene too often pushed into a dark corner.
And the character unique to Ballo, the page Oscar, saucy, quicksilvery, was done that way, as we all wish it to be, by Heidi Stober. Her coloratura flashed and sparkled, and was never more dramatically telling than in Verdi’s inspired idea to bring her in at the darkest, most critical moment of the drama. Amelia has just realized that her husband Renato, discovering what he mistakenly believes to be her infidelity, intends to kill the king (Riccardo), his closest friend.
Christian Van Horn and Scott Conner, as the conspirators Sam and Tom, were worthy, their bass voices dark as assassins’ should be. In a different take, when they confront Renato and his veiled wife in the gallows field scene, the usual few fellows to back them up are now a male chorus of 30 or so assassins, musically full, but not credible dramatically.
The set designs were the Ballo best, drawn from one or more other companies and modified, but all to the good. The opening, of the king’s antechamber, a gray bas-relief high on the back wall, flanked by three pairs of white columns; Renato’s study, a handsome, wood-paneled wall topped by murals; the ballroom, a brilliant setting with a two-story triple portico at the rear. Eight dancers did a lively commedia routine (by the company’s gifted choreographer Lawrence Pech) in front of the revelers, all clad in striking costumes by John Conklin. Until, that is, Renato’s gunshot killed the action — and the king.
As amusing unintended commentary on this opera’s changeable venue, the supertitles used the character’s Swedish names while the singers stuck to Italian. And, in the final intermission, the audience cheered the news, flashed on the supertitle screen, that the San Francisco Giants had just defeated the Washington Nationals to win their division series in the playoffs. So the city had two winners that night.
Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic from 1965-93 and previously conductor and lecturer at the University of California – Berkeley.