- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

The Washington Opera ended its long winter exile from the Kennedy Center this week with a smashing production of Giuseppe Verdi's tragic "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("A Masked Ball").

With a first-rate cast and gorgeous if somewhat incongruous sets imported from Milan's famed La Scala, these performances will give Washington's cherry blossoms a real run for their money as an attraction.

"Un Ballo" certainly had one of the most convoluted premieres in opera history. Originally called "Gustavus III," with its libretto based on the assassination of a Swedish king at a lavish court ball in 1792, the opera ran into trouble with government censors when the composer attempted to stage it in 1858. Italian authorities grew increasingly nervous about the work's anti-royalist undertones. Uprisings from 1848 still haunted them, and a group of Italian revolutionaries tried to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III Naples was still under French rule while the opera was in rehearsal. Authorities threatened to ban "Un Ballo," but the public mounted noisy demonstrations on the composer's behalf.

Verdi refused to change the libretto, but hit upon what today seems a bizarre compromise: He agreed to relocate the action of the opera to Colonial Boston. King Gustavus morphed into Riccardo, Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston. Conspirators Sam and Tom were cast as blacks and co-conspirator Renato became a mulatto. The sorceress Ulrica, originally a Gypsy type, became a voodoo priestess. This geography-defying, multiracial arrangement seemed non-European enough and soon won approval from the censors.

Hence, the seemingly odd La Scala production makes sense. While its first scene is set in a New England-style government building, Ulrica's scene appears to take place in the ruined hulk of a New Orleans manse, complete with voodoo altar, candles, and piles of skulls.

The main reason "Un Ballo" remains popular is Verdi's score. The composer was well into his middle period, and his music for "Un Ballo" is provocative, inventive and ravishingly beautiful everything that made and continues to make Italian opera the gold standard in musical theater. The Washington Opera's stellar cast, smoothly directed by Marina Bianchi, makes the most of the opportunities the composer created.

Dramatically, "Un Ballo" offers a study in contrasts. The character of Riccardo proves to be particularly rich and complex. He is a modern ruler generally popular with his people (except the conspirators). He is also playful. Even the love between Amelia and him, which leads to his demise, is pure, halted by Riccardo out of his respect for Renato, his friend and her husband.

Italian tenor and Met star Marcello Giordani is at the top of his game as Riccardo. Washington audiences have enjoyed him before in productions of "Romeo et Juliette" and "Simon Boccanegra." But Riccardo is an industrial strength role, requiring stamina and power as well as acting ability. Mr. Giordani coaxes from his luxuriously silky voice the tenderest of pianissimos in one scene and lets loose with chandelier-rattling passion in the next. His is an instrument of great character that gets better and better as he tackles tougher roles and places him, along with Argentine tenor Jose Cura, among the superstars in a rising generation of talented young singers.

As Riccardo's friend and eventual nemesis Renato, baritone Stephan Pyatnychkomust wait until the third act for his place in the limelight. His savage condemnation of Amelia hits all the right musical and dramatic notes, alternating bitterness and heartbreak as he anguishes over his apparent betrayal by his wife and his friend and justifies his conversion to the dark side. He confirms his intentions in a powerful trio with gleefully nasty conspirators Samuel and Tom (basses Vitalij Kowaljow and Julien Robbins), yet another in a string of fine male ensembles that have made this Washington Opera season memorable.

In the role of the hapless Amelia, soprano Ines Salazar is generally convincing, with her voice the equal in many respects of those of her male co-stars. But Miss Salazar seemed a bit tentative on opening night, particularly in the first act when her vocal figures were occasionally uncertain as were one or two off-pitch a cappella landings.

In some respects, the smaller roles are the most fun in this opera. Ulrica appears only in one special scene, but Elena Zaremba makes the most of it. The program calls Miss Zaremba a mezzo-soprano, but her voice descends deep into the dark territory of the contralto and is most effective. Arrayed in a fright hairdo and with ominous little talismans dangling from her belt, Miss Zaremba's Ulrica takes some of the wind out of a puckish Riccardo's sails as his palm-reading foretells his doom.

In the sprightly trouser role of Oscar, Riccardo's page, soprano Youngok Shin soars to the opposite end of the female vocal register. Miss Shin gets to sing Verdi's frilly coloratura tunes in this opera, and she nails her many vocal arabesques accurately and with great enthusiasm. Her solo moments are like twinkling jewels in an opera whose tone gets darker as the evening progresses.

Conductor Eugene Kohn directed his vocal and instrumental forces with accuracy and attention to nuance, even though both chorus and soloists got away from him at times in the first act. Particularly notable was the delicate, passionate playing he coaxed from the orchestra in the opera's brief, expressive overture. Maestro Kohn will be sharing the podium during these performances with artistic director Placido Domingo, who will be at the helm on April 14 and 20. Cast changes also will occur.



***1/2

WHAT: The Washington Opera's production of "Un Ballo in Maschera." WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday and April 20, 8 p.m. Thursday and April 17 and 1 p.m. April 14

TICKETS: $40 to $280

PHONE: 202/295-2400 or online at www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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