When you combine an ideal cast, sharp direction, a smart period set, and a sympathetic baton in the pit, the result is San Diego Opera’s “A Masked Ball,” which opened Saturday (March 8) at Civic Theatre. The cast list for this gripping but far too infrequently performed Verdi opera looked good on paper, but on stage it was spectacular.
Based on a tragic footnote in Swedish history—the assassination of the enlightened Swedish monarch Gustav III in 1792 at a festive masked ball in the opera house he had built earlier in his reign—this opera balances tragedy and comedy with Shakesperean sophistication. It also boasts one of Verdi’s richest scores, replete with moving duets, trios, and vivacious ensembles supported by the composer’s most imaginative orchestral scoring.
Tenor Piotr Beczala was born to sing Gustav, a role he inhabits with regal aplomb. The rich, Italianate color of his upper range supplied all the requisite brilliance to express his unrequited ardor for Amelia, the wife of his friend and court advisor Anckarström, yet he cavorted deftly with comic vocal swagger in his fisherman’s disguise in his visit to the fortune-teller. A tenor needs more than a few stratospheric “money notes” to interpret the Verdi, and Beczala provides the perfect balance of power and nuance in the wide range of emotion and vocal finesse this repertory demands.
Beczala is well-known to local audiences—he sang a superb Rodolfo in the company’s 2010 La bohème, and he won
broad acclaim as the Duke in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of its controversial “Las Vegas” Rigoletto production last season—but Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her local debut was a new voice to this opera buff. Stoyanova proved equal to Beczala’s emotional range and prowess, giving gleaming vocal strength to the conflicted Amelia. Yet her aria “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” evoked tender pathos as she begged her husband to forgive her straying affections.
Is there any way to describe Stephanie Blythe’s resounding mezzo-soprano voice other than a force of nature? As Madame Arvidson, the fortune-teller who predicts the king’s death, Blythe completely commanded the stage in her one highly dramatic scene. Her robust, resonant voice electrified her spine-tingling opening aria “Re dell’abisso,” shaking the Civic Theatre rafters and establishing her sinister authority. As she interacted with each of the main characters in the drama, she filled in Verdi’s cunning psychological portrait of the strange woman Gustav comes to pardon and who, parodoxically, tries to save his life.
As Oscar, the King’s young page, soprano Kathleen Kim scampered vocally and physically about the stage, giving her role its appropriate comedic lightness. Yet in ensembles, she projected a steely timbre that easily held its own with the other strong voices. She is slated to be the Madame Mao in next season’s San Diego Opera production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, a great virtuoso part that should be just right for her voice.
In his North American debut, Greek baritone Aris Argiris brought his rich baritone to the key role of Count Anckarström, the loyal subject who turns on the king when he discovers he is pursuing his wife with inappropriate romantic intentions. In his big solo aria “Eri tu,” Argiris exploded with all the passion Verdi wrote into this familiar aria. On occasion, however, Argiris pushed his voice and temporarily lost its winning color.
In the roles of the evil conspirators, bass Kevin Langan and bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam provided sturdy support, especially in the so-called “laughing chorus,” where they mock Anckarström. Langan, a veteran singer who has commanded many roles in his long career, still sounds fresh and persuasive. Bravo!
Tenor Joseph Hu, also a familiar San Diego presence, gave a welcome comedic turn to his role as the High Judge, and, equally at home on the Civic Theatre stage, Scott Sikon proved a hearty young sailor who visits Madame Arvidson before the disguised King gets his audience with her.
The ever-dependable San Diego Opera chorus under the direction of Charles F. Prestinari gave a vigorous yet tailored account both as the King’s advisors and as the great assembly in the masked ball finale. Under the leadership of Massimo Zanetti, the orchestra gave Verdi’s magnificent score its due throughout the evening, and Zanetti’s pacing pressed the dramatic flow with just enough anticipatory edge. He proved a most sympathetic accompanist to the singers, notably in their ensembles.
This is an opera in which Verdi, quite atypically, has ensembles sing short sections without the orchestra, and in every case their balance and intonation were impeccable.
Stage director Lesley Koenig wove the many scenes of this opera into a cogent dramatic progression, and her canny grouping of the characters on the set brought their relationships into sharp focus. Her staging of the assassination and the King’s final benediction gave unusual dignity to that scene.
Kenneth von Heidecke brought some pleasantly diverting choreography to the ball scene that balanced the grim murder that followed it.
This production’s dignified period set provided restrained elegance for the royal palace and eerie mustiness for the fortune-teller’s chamber. Gary Marder’s ghostly lighting for the midnight encounter at the gallows and the flickering candles chez Madame Arvidson made these scenes particularly effective. Although the set is owned by San Francisco Opera, its designer was not credited. The smart period costumes by John Conklin gave appropriate dignity to the drama without calling undue attention. After all, this took place in Stockholm—not Versailles.
Tickets 619.533.7000; sdopera.com