In Act III, Scene 3 of Un ballo en maschera, the Swedish king Gustavus III has resolved to renounce his love for Amelia, the wife of his chief minister Anckarström.
Un Ballo in Maschera
* Notes *
A fourth performance of San Francisco Opera's A Masked Ball this season was held yesterday. The orchestra and singers were more synchronized, but there were times when the former was slightly ahead of the latter. At times this was excitingly chaotic. There were lovely soli from the cello, English horn, and clarinet. The harp was particularly beautiful throughout Act III as well.
The principal singers were consistent. Heidi Stober sang Oscar with an effortless grace. Dolora Zajick has a rich sound as Madame Arvidson. Ramón Vargas sounded sweet as Gustavus III. His high notes were somewhat tepid in the duet with Julianna Di Giacomo (Amelia) in Act II Scene 1. Di Giacomo was triumphant again in her role and garnered much applause and cheering.
Thomas Hampson (pictured above with Julianna Di Giacomo in Act III Scene 1, photograph by Cory Weaver) makes for a grave, measured Anckarström. His "Alla vita che t'arride" was more reserved than Brian Mulligan's and his Act III "Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima" was more threatening.
* Tattling *
Standing room was again not crowded, perhaps because San Francisco Opera hardly ever has Monday night performances. A mobile phone rang in Act I at the back of the north side of the balcony, and a woman chose to take the call but at least she hurried out of the hall to do so.
* Notes *
Last night San Francisco Opera performed A Masked Ball a second time this season. The traditional production is the same as the one seen here in 2006, Jose Maria Condemi's direction is similarly straightforward, if not slightly bland. The ball scene (Act III pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), however, is quite festive. This performance had Brian Mulligan singing Count Anckarström instead of Thomas Hampson, and Mulligan sings again on October 22nd. Nicola Luisotti conducted a rich and lush sounding orchestra. The volume was not overwhelming to the voices, at least from the back of the balcony. The orchestra was often ahead of the singers, this was particularly noticeable in Act II, when Anckarström appears to warn Gustavus.
Dolora Zajick is utterly convincing as Madame Arvidson, her deep, full sound is well-suited to the role. Brian Mulligan sounded strong as Count Anckarström, and his first aria, "Alla vita che t'arride," was gorgeous. Ramón Vargas (Gustavus III) has a pretty, reed-like voice, but was perhaps the weakest of the principals. Heidi Stober made for a dazzling and boyish Oscar. Julianna Di Giacomo (Amelia) sounded clear and sonorous. Her debut on the War Memorial stage certainly seems a success.
* Tattling *
Axel Feldheim kindly saved me a spot at the railing, though it was not crowded in standing room, perhaps because the San Francisco Giants were playing the Washington Nationals in game four of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park. The opera displayed the scores before the opera and during intermissions. The audience cheered when the results were favorable.
Julianna Di Giacomo (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) made an impressive debut at San Francisco Opera in Un Ballo in Maschera as Amelia.
September 6-11 2008: Eugene Onegin
September 24- November 2 2008: Rigoletto
October 11- November 2 2008: The Bartered Bride
October 13- November 12 2008: Cunning Little Vixen
October 30- December 3 2008: Tristan und Isolde
November 17- December 23 2008: Die Zauberflöte
November 25- December 21 2008: Fidelio
January 17-30 2009: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
January 24- February 8 2009: Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne
January 29- March 4 2009: Madama Butterfly
February 27- March 22 2009: Idomeneo
February 28- March 26 2009: Werther
April 4- May 8 2009: Macbeth
April 10- May 23 2009: Un ballo in maschera
May 4-18 2009: The Makropulos Affair
May 20- June 5 2009: Tosca
June 13-21 2009: Demofoonte
June 18- July 2009: King Roger
Riccardo Muti conducts Demofoonte. Waltraud Meier sings Isolde opposite of Clifton Forbis. Paul Groves sings the title role of Idomeneo, with Joyce DiDonato as Idamante and Camilla Tilling as Ilia. Rolando Villazon shares the role of Werther with Marcus Haddock. Deborah Voigt shares the role of Amelia with Angela Brown and Ulrica Elena Manistina.
* Notes *
Deborah Voigt recovered enough to sing Amelia at the closing of Un Ballo in San Francisco on September 29th. Both she and Anna Christy (Oscar) stood out as good. I noticed that Marcus Haddock (Gustavus III) doesn't have a certain staccato quality that is necessary for some of the music. After seeing this production four times, I determined that it is a bit boring. It is so pretty, but not quite right.
* Tattling *
Some Scandinavian tourists brought their young daughter to the opera. The child was perhaps two-years old and was unable to keep quiet during the beginning, she screamed during the overture. The mother took the child outside for most of Act I, but returned for the rest. Thankfully the child slept for much of Acts II and III.
Soprano Deborah Voigt was ill with a stomach flu last night, and her understudy, Erin Wood, made her San Francisco Opera debut as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. Wood's voice is cold and pretty, but not nearly as expansive as Voigt's. At times she was slightly shrill and had too much vibrato. Wood wore a purple gown instead of the gold one worn by Voigt in the last scene.
* Notes *
A Washington National Opera production of Un Ballo in Maschera opened the new season in San Francisco under the direction of Gina Lapinski. Entirely traditional in set and costume design, it was a spectacle quite pleasing to the eye with much Louis XIV splendor. There are six scenes but only one intermission, so it was no mean feat having nearly each one rather different than the next. The least fleshed-out scene is Act III Scene 2, when Gustavus is musing in his quarters before the ball. A black screen simply hides the upstage, and a desk and chair are downstage. The last scene emerges when Commedia dell'arte characters dance out and pretend to lift the screen, revealing the splendid hall with a balcony on the upper floor and large chandeliers.
Marco Armiliato did not seem to have complete control of the orchestra, they seemed just slightly off from the singers, particularly in the first act. The singers were all reasonably good, though of course, Deborah Voigt stands out, as her voice has a good deal of volume and command. Her voice is not flashy, but elegant and solid. It may not be worth mentioning, but Ms. Voigt had gastric bypass surgery and went from a size 28 to a size 14. A few years ago her contract with the Royal Opera, London was canceled because their production of Ariadne auf Naxos involved a little black dress that they felt would not work on Ms. Voigt. Her surgery, thankfully, has not ruined her voice.
Other fine singing came from soprano Anna Christy, who made a trim and dashing Oscar. Her bird-like voice has a charming effervescence. Former Adler Fellow Joshua Bloom sang well as the Count Ribbing. Bloom has had six roles at San Francisco Opera in the last two years, and I look forward to hearing him in a larger role soon. Current Adler Fellow Eugene Brancoveanu also shows promise as the sailor Christian.
None of the four singers who made their San Francisco Opera debuts with Un Ballo were terribly striking. Tenor Marcus Haddock (Gustavus III) was slightly quiet and reedy; baritone Ambrogio Maestri (Anckarström) was lackluster at times. Mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn may have produced fireballs on stage as Madame Arvidson, and though her voice does not lack fire, her singing was a bit rough and gasping. The other Adler Fellow, Jeremy Galyon, was adequate as Count Horn, but did not make a strong impression.
This is the first production of Un Ballo I have managed to see. In 2003, I had a ticket to this opera in Munich, but instead went to Venice for a few weeks. Verdi's 21st opera is based on an incident in 1792. For the premiere in Rome, Verdi was obliged to change the names of the characters and set the opera in colonial Boston instead of 18th century Stockholm. The music often has simultaneous elements of tragedy and comedy, to great effect, as seen in the finale of Act II, "Ve'se di notte qui con la sposa." The conspirators Ribbing and Horn think they've discovered Anckarström's assignation with his own wife, while Anckarström mistakenly believes that his wife and Gustavus have had a tryst. The jesting of Ribbing and Horn as Anckarström vows revenge and Amelia grieves makes for a distressing irony.
* Tattling *
The side supertitles have been removed this season and are replaced by four small screens under the boxes so the titles are nearly unavoidable. The new general director is has also concerned himself with the length of the performances, he favors early curtain times during the week, and fewer intermissions. The sentiment is a fine one, however, many people were arrived late and naturally they chattered in standing room during the first scene. During the September 13th performance I heard no less than three cell phones, one of these was from a latecomer right next to me. The audience this day was quite absurd in other ways, they applauded when Deborah Voigt made her entrance midway in Act I Scene 2, before she had sung a note. Perhaps they did not notice she is billed last in the program, as the cast is listed by vocal appearance. They also clapped for the scenery of the last scene, the ball room. In addition, they giggled at the supertitles for Madame Arvidson's line "Perchè possa rispondere a voi è d'uopo che innanzi m'abbocchi a Satàno." Apparently reading the word "Satan" is simply hilarious, for this happened at the September 20th performance as well.