What better way to celebrate the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi than with his famous costume party? And so it was that I found myself on October 10 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House raising a metaphorical glass to the great composer’s 201st. “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), however, is not all birthday cake and balloons, despite its title. More like suspicion and traitorous plotting, illicit love and vengeful murder, with a big bash thrown in at the end.
And, sad to say, it is not until that party that Jose Maria Condemi’s rather lackluster production comes fully alive. There are moments: the great “Eri tu” aria of regret and revenge that brings out the best in the otherwise miscast uber-baritone Thomas Hampson; the heroine Amelia’s long scena in a lonely haunted field at midnight, which firmly establishes Julianna Di Giacomo, a former Merola Opera alumna in her San Francisco debut, as an artist of the first rank; Dolora Zajick’s spooky, scenery-chewing witch; and any time Heidi Stober’s mischievous, exuberant page Oscar takes center stage. But there are not enough of them to raise the pulse of the nearly three-hour work. In spite of a starry cast, it remains firmly earthbound where it should soar on the wings of Verdi’s tuneful score.
The plot, loosely based on a historical assassination originally chronicled for another opera (by Auber) by Eugene Scribe, centers around Gustavus, King of Sweden, who has the misfortune of falling in love with his best friend and closest advisor’s wife. And our misfortune is the famed Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas in the role. While he has a lovely voice, somewhat strained at the top, Vargas may be the stiffest actor in opera today, singing directly to the audience (in case, heaven forbid, one note be lost in the cavernous depths of the stage), even when declaring his passion to Amelia. He is responsible for a great deal of this production’s inert feeling. The only time he comes alive is when impersonating a sailor in order to unmask a soothsayer (Zajick) who has been — justly or unjustly — condemned to exile.
Following the advice of the sorceress, Amelia goes to a gallows hill at midnight to gather an herb, purported to have the power to erase her reciprocal love for the king, but he follows her there. And her husband, Renato (Hampson), follows him. What ensues is almost worthy of a Marx Brothers comedy, as a group of conspirators, disgruntled courtiers intent on doing the king in, show up as well. Gustavus escapes but the bad guys tear the veil from Amelia’s face revealing that she is Renato’s wife (with a chorus heavy on “ha, ha, ha,” which means the same in Italian as English). It’s a little silly but Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Somma, wrote it that way, so it elicits a few of several unintended laughs from the audience.
But this is serious stuff. Furious, Renato, certain that his wife is cheating on him, vows revenge, at first on her and then, joining the conspirators, on the king. He gets it too, at the masked ball of the title where, among the cavorting Harlequins and Columbines and Punchinellos (nice ballet work by Lawrence Pech’s dancers), he shoots Gustavo, just as the sorceress predicted he would. Got to say this for Vargas — he goes down singing.
Kudos to Ian Robertson’s chorus and the orchestra under the practiced Italianate baton of Nicola Luisotti, as well as the conspirators and the superb trio of female leads. As for Hampson (who will share the role with Brian Mulligan) and Vargas, they are both great singers who have seen better days.