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In performance: WNO's Ballo

Edited to add: A link to the review published in Monday's Washington Post: Verdi still shines, even if WNO doesn't, by Anne Midgette.

Below, the first draft of this review, published on this blog the night of the performance. Are first thoughts better? You tell me.

Preview of the review coming in Monday's Washington Post:

“Un Ballo in Maschera” is one of Verdi’s loveliest operas. Though a tragedy, it’s filled with light and laughter, brimming with tunes so sweet as to be guilty pleasures, featuring one of the more appealing tenor leads in the repertory. The Washington National Opera responded to at least one of these traits in the production that opened the season on Saturday night, casting that lead role -- King Gustavo of Sweden -- with Salvatore Licitra, who’s a big blunt likeable tenor, and the one big-name star of the night.
(read more after the jump)

The other roles are cast with young or less-known singers; the production, by James Robinson, is a three-year-old effort that’s already been seen at Opera Colorado, the Boston Lyric Opera and the Minnesota Opera. In short, WNO is falling back on a summer-stock formula: bring in one recognizable name and fill out the rest with what you can afford. (Allen Moyer’s sets, with chandeliers and a few pieces of furniture on a largely empty stage, are an example of the ever-more-popular Virtue of Necessity school of bare-bones productions.) The question, this season, is going to be figuring out to what standards this financially struggling company should be held. It can be praised for offering a decent provincial showing of a great opera. Or it can be criticized for falling short of the international level to which it has, in the past, aspired.

Another question was whether Licitra has enough star wattage to carry an entire production on his shoulders. The answer is: not quite. There’s no question that he has a bigger, stronger voice than anybody else in this cast (he really doesn’t mean to sing louder than everybody else) and there’s no question that he’s capable of making wonderful, ringing, tenor sounds. But though he plays a ruler in this opera, he does better as a follower: He sounds best when he has other people to play off. The kinds of approximations heard in his opening aria improved as soon as Luca Salsi, the baritone playing his best friend Count Anckarström, walked on stage; and his Act II love duet with Tamara Wilson, as Amelia, was the highlight of the evening. (The king’s problem is that Amelia is the count’s wife. This does not end well.)

Licitra, alone, seemed at something of a loss to know what to say, and he wasn’t the only one. Too often, what the singers were communicating, in lieu of rage or passion or ardent love, sounded like “Here are some tricky notes that I am singing; I am pleased that I hit them all!” Wilson is a competent singer with the ability to sing the part; but her expression is a work in progress. Salsi had more the shape of a baritone than the substance; his lower register was almost inaudible.

Robinson could have helped develop the expression in his directing, but as so often happens, the focus seemed to be more on clever stage business than on opening up the characters. The conspirators Count Ribbing and Count Horn (Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins) showed they were bad guys by roughing up the fortuneteller Mam’zelle Arvidson (Elena Manistina), and then killing her. Micaëla Oeste’s Oscar, the King’s androgynous page, was constantly telegraphing High Spirits by jumping up on a chair or leaping onto Count Ribbing’s back, which couldn’t have made singing the part any easier.

Nor did the singers get a lot of help from Daniele Callegari, the conductor making his WNO debut. Indeed, though Callegari has a respectable big-company career, he seemed at something of a loss to correct some of the problems here, like keeping the ensembles together, though Act II was certainly a signal improvement on Act I.

With this production, WNO appears to have scaled back to a more modest goal than some companies: to present a beautiful opera to its audience so they can hear the music and get a sense of what the whole thing is about. This is not a production that breaks any new ground. Nor does it offer singing that lifts you out of your seat. But it certainly offers some great music. It repeats seven more times until Sept. 25, including the matinee on Sept.19 that will be broadcast live, and free of charge, to Nationals Park. The idea is to introduce new audiences to opera. And this “Ballo” seems to be just that: an introduction.

Among many things, it introduces a larger question: If the company does, in fact, merge with the Kennedy Center as a last-resort solution to its financial disarray, as has been rumored for months and as seems probable, what is the artistic level that it will be able to maintain? Stay tuned.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 11, 2010; 11:57 PM ET
Categories:  Washington , opera  
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Next: Review round-up


I would say that Licitra deserves more credit than either review gave, especially the on-line post. Also, Tamara Wilson (Amelia) should have been reviewed more in the on-line post, as she was in the print edition. How old is she ? Is she good for this stage of her career?

Neither review mentions the chorus, which I thought sound good.

The stage was so boring to watch. Act 2, with the chandeliers lowered and partially covered with fabric to suggest rocks, was particularly tawdry. The end of the first scene of Act I with the chorus clumsily piling the chairs from the set just looked unrehearsed, and then left us with a mess to look at. The color scheme of the sets and costumes was bland. Bring back grand opera !

Finally, why the current trend for so many artist biographies in the program not to mention either where they grew up, or where they initially studied? This is interesting also, not just the hype of where they have or will perform.

In Domingo's off the cuff, mumbled welcome to the audience, he appeared a bit disheveled, although looking a bit heavier after his cancer surgery. He should be gracious and resign.

Posted by: petronius88 | September 13, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

P.S.- When I suggested that Domingo resign, I mean because of the low point to which he has led the company, not because of his health. Washington Opera was a far better organization with a much better product when he inherited the company.

Posted by: petronius88 | September 13, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Anne, I always enjoy your reviews. For me, the printed one was better in this case, more polished.

As a long term subscriber I'm very concerned about the state of the opera. It has some very good people. But when they cut back to 5 operas this year, I thought the idea was that they would do a first class job on those 5. Who could have thought that the dreary production mounted Saturday, which evidently has already been around the block a number of times, was suitable for an opening night (or any night)?


Posted by: Beth24 | September 13, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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