Opera review: Female singers lift S.F. Opera’s 'Ballo’

10.05.14
Julianna Di Giacomo
San Francisco Chronicle

By Lisa Hirsch

Playing to Music Director Nicola Luisotti's strengths and the company's current orientation toward Italian opera, San Francisco Opera’s third production of the season is Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball). A weak showing by the male leads and lackluster direction made Saturday’s opening night less than a complete success, but the production’s superb trio of leading women and Luisotti’s stylish conducting make it well worth seeing regardless.

A tale of fate, politics and passion, “Ballo” is set in 18th century Sweden, or, more commonly, 17th century Boston. The charming King Gustavus III (Riccardo in Boston), popular with the common people and most of his court, loves Amelia Anckarström from afar, even though she is married to his closest friend and political ally, Count Anckarström (Renato). An impulsive decision to visit the fortune teller Madame Arvidson (Ulrica) sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to the King’s assassination.

The big news is the spectacular company and role debut of soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, as a touching and deeply-felt Amelia Anckarström. A 1999 graduate of the Merola Opera Program, Di Giacomo has the ideal voice for this role, beautiful, fresh and easily produced, from glowing top to bottom. She lacks for nothing technically, singing with a gorgeous legato and noble, long-breathed phrasing, not to mention exquisite dynamic control, whether pleading for a last view of her child in “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” or contemplating the gallows at midnight in “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa.”

What a shame, then, that the men at the other points of the romantic triangle fell short of the high standard set by Di Giacomo. Tenor Ramón Vargas certainly has the charm and musical style for a good Gustavus III, but he struggled vocally, sounding dry, strained at the top, and much too small-voiced for the theater. Baritone Thomas Hampson, a great singer in the right repertory and here a dramatically convincing Count Anckarström, has to manipulate his voice to a distracting degree just to get all the notes out. He’s particularly weak at the low end, growling rather than singing, and his soft-grained voice isn’t right for Verdi’s big baritone roles.

Pivotal role

Dolora Zajick brought her trademark powerhouse mezzo-soprano to the short, but pivotal, role of the fortune teller Madame Arvidson, a role she has not sung before in San Francisco. A company regular since her Adler Fellow days 30 years ago, she remains a vocal miracle, retaining all of her enormous power and with surprisingly little wear after decades of singing the most demanding mezzo roles.

Lyric soprano Heidi Stober out-charms Vargas’ Gustavus as a fetching and full-voiced Oscar, the ever-present page who defends Madame Arvidson against a proposed banishment, runs errands for the King, and accidentally betrays his costume to Count Anckarström during the masked ball of the title.

The production uses the same handsome sets and costumes as the 2006 revival. Jose Maria Condemi’s blunt direction rarely gets to the heart and soul of the opera, although he moves the singers and chorus around with reasonable efficiency.

Amelia’s initial desperation over her adulterous love for Gustavus comes across strongly, but there’s little sense of release on either character’s part when she finally admits to her passion.

Skirted parody

There were scattered snickers in the audience during Madame Arvidson’s fortune telling scene, which just skirted parody despite the combined power of Zajick’s singing and Verdi’s music. The entire production is afflicted with similar problems and missed opportunities, only occasionally approaching the white heat built into the music and libretto.

As a musical whole, the performance took about half the first act to collect itself and gather momentum. Some slackness came from Hampson’s vocal and musical awkwardness in the very first scene, with Luisotti leading cautiously. The performance finally snapped into focus, and stayed there, when Madame Arvidson predicts that Gustavus will be murdered by a friend. From that point, Luisotti’s conducting was typically propulsive and colorful. Special credit goes to Janet Popesco Archibald for her magnificent English horn solo during “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa.” Ian Robertson's chorus sang with its typical excellence and vigor.