rvw: Ballo at Lyric

Passion, betrayal, and hubris abound in Lyric's production of Un ballo in maschera, effectively mixed and stewed by conductor Asher Fisch into a potent cocktail.

After last season's production of Ernani (1844), I swore off Verdi's early operas.  And, yet I was coaxed back to see Macbeth (1847) at the beginning of this season, which was more musically compelling but still fell short.  Un ballo in maschera (1859) was touted as Verdi's crowing achievement in this style: the one that wins you over.  And the expectations kept piling up: my friends who saw it--in previews and on opening night--urged me to see it, citing a star-studded cast full of powerful voices. And I can't disagree.  Although the opera follows a lot of the same formulaic formulas (that make a lot of Verdi's output run together), the music and the plot come together more intimately, both conspiring to tell the story.  Still a numbers opera (get your clapping hands ready), the arias have more weighty significance than mere vehicles for vocal pyrotechnics.

My friends were right, the voices culled together by the Lyric are fully full of powerfulness--sometimes like a firehose of sound pointed at the audience.  In fact, there were times where it was overkill; in certain intimate arias, the sparsely orchestrated accompaniment was drowned out by the vocal melodrama.  Everyone else may be talking about the women--Stephanie Blythe as the demonic fortune teller or Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia--but my night was made by the acutely balanced singing of tenor Frank Lopardo, who was not only vocally delectable but also tuned into the plot, making me feel like I actually understand the Italian flowing out of his mouth.  Clear diction and confident body language aren't just for thespians.  [It's not even worth mentioning that Mr. Lopardo was under the weather; his performance made it a non-issue.]
As for the much-hyped women, I was blown away by their power but still somewhat unconvinced.  Ms. Radvanovsky was intensely intense but verged on hysterical for most of her time on stage, somewhat overplaying a woman caught in the throes of forbidden love.  Unfortunately, she left out any semblance of consonants (or even vowels), unnecessarily opening the floodgates too wide and too often.  Much too much muchness for the role, but I would love to see her fill a larger role.  The audience was, on the whole, enthralled by her performance, but there's something about excessive excess that pushes me away.
Ms. Blythe was, as expected, a force of nature as Ulrica, channeling and conjuring a variety of different timbres and genders throughout her register--in some people's eyes, stealing the show.  Having such little time on stage, she had to make her presence known--and was highly effective at that--but might have been distastefully overwhelming had she spent another act on stage.  
As always in opera, finding the right balance is nearly impossible, and so we should rejoice when productions such as this come close to getting it right: an uncomplicated plot, further uncomplicated by a straight-forward production, allowing the singers to be the main focus.  

Recommendedly recommended

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