Un ballo in maschera at the Washington National Opera

jealousy, murder and mayhem amid the sparkle of a masked ball certainly provide all the
ingredients necessary for a successful inaugural gala. Yet director James Robinson’s version of
the Ballo that has opened Washington National Opera’s 2010-2011 season is for the most part a
gloomy affair, deliberately bereft of pageantry and panache. The color palette is mostly silver,
eggshell, and beige; the chorus is dressed in identical drab gray, their steel-gray masks
completing the picture of cold, faceless mannequins. Perhaps the director wanted to set the
passionate principals of the drama (who — both heroes and villains — are permitted color) in
sharper relief against the bland complicity of the chorus that tends to break into sycophantic
hymns of praise at every opportunity – a habit that both the conspirators of the story and quite a
few members of the audience, in my experience, tend to find extremely irritating.

As is fashionable nowadays, the action in this Ballo has been moved back to the 18th-century
Swedish court of Gustav III, Verdi’s original location, which spares an American audience from
the torment of imagining the 17th-century Boston, MA, populated by the very un-pilgrim-like
Renato and Riccardo. Otherwise, this production is almost entirely traditional, which seemed to
suit most of the principals I saw on Tuesday, September 14th, quite well. The Italian imports
(tenor Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo and baritone Luca Salsi as Renato, Count Anckarström) in
particular tended to gravitate towards the footlights at every opportunity, singing to the audience
rather than to each other. Soprano Tamara Wilson as Amelia also tended to limit her acting to an
occasional turn of the head. Yet, especially toward the end of the opera, it somehow worked for
her, lending her tragic character dignity and poise that, in her predicament, Amelia could
certainly use.

The only person in the production whom I spied having any fun at all was Micaëla Oeste’s
lovable page Oscar. Oeste’s light, pure tone and her fast, precise, flexible coloratura made short
work of the difficult part. She also monopolized virtually all the stage business in this Masked
Ball, dancing, flirting, and mischief-making her way through the performance and keeping alive
the bubbly spirit of French comedy, which Verdi so carefully planted into his score and which the
other performers occasionally seemed to have misplaced. The one exception was the tasty
“laughing chorus” at the end of Act 2, led with a suave nonchalance by Kenneth Kellogg and
Julien Robbins as Count Ribbing and Count Horn respectively.

One of the highlights of the evening was Salvatore Licitra, who will surely not lack for admirers
in the DC area after his performance as Gustavo. Licitra’s is a powerful, metallic tenore di forza
that we demand of our Dukes, Alfredos, and Radameses; it carried without strain, easily taking
and holding the mandatory high Bs of Gustavo’s part. The singer was at his best in the bel canto
strains of his cantabile arias, and as their prominence in his part increased in Acts 2 and 3, his
performance soared, the famous grand duet with Amelia and the Act 3 romance Ma se m’è forza
perderti garnering plenty of well-deserved applause. All that power, however, seems to come at
the expense of flexibility, which made for a few awkward moments in Act 1, in which Gustavo
must be at his comic best. While the opening La rivedrà nell’ estasi was lovely, Licitra’s solos in
the stretta, Ogni cura si doni al diletto and particularly in the fabulous quintet, È scherzo od è
follia in Act 1 Scene 2, lacked not only an articulate coloratura, but occasionally the basic pitch
and rhythm, especially at the break-neck tempi chosen by the conductor, Licitra’s compatriot
Daniele Callegari. The bright spot in that scene was the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina,
who stole the show as the fortune-teller Ulrica (that is, Mam’zelle Arvidson, according to Verdi’s
original cast list). Manistina’s deep, rich, darkly powerful voice carried easily, with perhaps only
a little too much vibrato – an echo of the Moscow singing school that nurtured the singer, a
former Operalia winner. Immediately impressive was the opening invocation; despite the
distraction of her unfortunate costume and wig (a cross between Macbeth and The Witches of
Eastwick), one could hear both the menace of Azucena and the mystery of the Pique Dame, Ms.
Manistina’s two signature parts.

Manistina-and-Licitra_051_c.gifSalvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III and Elena Manistina as Ulrica

As is so often the case, the overall impression of an opera production is either ruined or
redeemed by the decisions of its design team, and the WNO’s Ballo was no exception (sets by
Allen Moyer; original lighting by Duane Schuler; lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). The set for the
fortune-telling scene, for instance, features the back panel of the palace ballroom, raised to hover
diagonally over the stage, while Gustavo is forced to hide, in a most undignified fashion, behind
a pile of left-over ballroom furniture. The choice of the ballroom’s fancy candelabra, partially
covered with strips of cloth, somehow made to illuminate the Act 2 graveyard scene, is also
rather puzzling. And alas, the pitiful sight of the choristers carrying their own chairs does make
one reflect upon the depth of WNO’s budget woes. The “less is more” approach, however, works
wonders in the opening scene of Act 3: set between the two panels – the floor and the
much-too-low ceiling, with the sides draped in black, the austere design projects the oppressive
and menacing atmosphere of the Anckarström household with spectacular power. Luca Salsi was
equally spot-on with his Eri tu, one of Renato’s signature pieces and undoubtedly Salsi’s best
contribution on Tuesday – his opening Alla vita che t’arride was shaky enough to make one
wonder whether the part was too high for him. Like Salsi, Tamara Wilson’s Amelia grew on me
as the evening progressed: her first act was unremarkable; the grand scena in Act 2 was better,
although I was not entirely convinced by the duet; but the heart-breaking Morrò ma prima in
grazia in Act 3 Scene 1, with its subtle mezzo voce, was truly memorable. That scene indeed
proved one of the most potent in the production, if not for the orchestra – the timpani so loud and
the brass so stunningly off-pitch, one could almost understand Amelia’s desire to end it all.

Wilson-and-Licitra_049_cr.gifSalvatore Licrita as King Gustavus III and Tamara Wilson as Amelia

In the final analysis, this WNO production of Un ballo in maschera, although uneven, is worth
seeing, both for the highlights in the cast and for some powerful moments in direction and
design. After all, the company is not spoiling us for choice this season, with only one other
production — Salome — between now and March. Stay tuned!

Olga Haldey

image_description=Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III [Photo by Scott Suchman/WNO]
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
product_by=King Gustavus III (Riccardo): Salvatore Licitra (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25), Frank Porretta (Sep 16, 20); Count Anckarstrˆm (Renato): Luca Salsi (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Timothy Mix (Sep 16, 20); Amelia: Tamara Wilson (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Susan Neves (Sep 16, 20); Oscar: MicaÎla Oeste± (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Monica Yunus (Sep 16, 20): Mam’zelle Arvidson (Ulrica): Elena Manistina; Count Ribbing (Samuel): Kenneth Kellogg;Count Horn (Tom): Julien Robbins (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), John Marcus Bindel (Sep 16, 20); Christian (Silvano): Aleksey Bogdanov; Servant: Peter Burroughs; Armfelt (Chief Judge): Tim Augustin. Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Director: James Robinson. Set Design: Allen Moyer. Costume Design: James Schuette.
product_id=Above: Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III

All photos by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera