Longtime devotees of San Diego Opera have been known to reminisce about the Tito Capobianco era, when the most celebrated opera stars—Beverly Sills, Tatiana Troyanos, and Luciano Pavarotti—were seen in productions by the local company at Civic Theatre. Capobianco, a flamboyant Argentine whose directorial success at New York City Opera gave him access to these A-list singers, headed San Diego Opera from 1976 to 1983 and wielded sufficient clout to get composer Giancarlo Menotti to write an opera for Sills (La Loca) to premiere here in 1979.
Capobianco may be a fading memory, and New York City Opera expired last year, but San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball featuring Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in major roles promises a return of the star-studded cast. Both singers are Metropolitan Opera regulars who also sing in Europe’s most prestigious houses, and their presence augurs well for this production, which opens on March 8, 2014.
Over lunch these two singers shared their insights into this esteemed but less familiar Verdi work (Verdi’s actual title is Un ballo in maschera), indulging in a few topical excursions to decry the excesses of Eurotrash productions and the directors they have endured. “I have sung in four different productions of this opera, and this is the first normal ballo for me,” Beczala explained. He contrasted San Diego’s period production originally designed for San Francisco Opera with one he did in Zurich, a modern setting in which the opera itself was treated like a play within a play.
“It seemed like the director’s main job was to brainwash the singers into accepting his concept of the piece,” he said with barely concealed disdain. “To the singers it really was no longer Verdi’s ballo, but we were still expected to make it work.”
Beczala, who impressed San Diegans with a winning, confident Rodolfo in this company’s 2010 La bohème, sings
the role of Gustav III in A Masked Ball, the late 18th-century Swedish monarch who—like his historical counterpart—is assasinated at a masked ball. “This role vocally is the most complex one in my repertory,” he said, “and I find in it aspects of earlier Verdi operas—La Traviata and Rigoletto—as well as hints of the later Otello.”
Blythe, who is making her San Diego debut, finds the attraction to her role of Madame Arvidson, the fortune-teller who warns the king of his fate, to be pragmatic rather than philosophical. “This opera is economical—you really get a big bang for your buck. I get to interact with every principal character in a single scene, and then I’m done. I could go home then, but I always stay around until the end.”
While the climax of this opera is undeniably tragic, Verdi laces his plot with Shakesperean moments of comic relief. “You can’t understand the tragedy unless you can see the other side,” Blythe noted.
“Gustav’s most attractive side is his playful self. He really is a good man, something you can feel in his music. And the character of Oscar [the king’s page—a trouser soprano role] is always light, sweet, exciting, and gender-twisting.”
“Gustav’s problem is that he is really too human,” added Beczala. “Other characters around him remind him of his duty, but he wants to have fun, to be a normal person. It is really a very modern story.”[php snippet=1]
Verdi wrote A Masked Ball in 1859, a mere six years after La Traviata, his biggest success in mid-career, and it demonstrates that he had mastered the economy of characterization that identify the crowning works of his long career, Otello and Falstaff.
“In the first five to ten bars of a Ballo aria, we detect the fingerprints of the character in strong, energetic strokes,” Beczala observed.
“What Verdi reveals in ten minutes, it takes Wagner a good two hours to unfold,” Blythe retorted. A veteran of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met—she should know.
Tickets: (619) 533-7000 or www.sdopera.com